Ranked-Choice Voting in Virginia? Not Yet (Except Maybe Primaries)

by Ken Reid

A ranked-choice voting system (RCV) is an alternative electoral process that allows people to vote for multiple candidates on a ballot in order of the voter’s preference. RCV has been adopted in at least 60 jurisdictions across the nation, including statewide and federal elections in Maine and Alaska.

Should Virginia counties and cities adopt RCV for upcoming November elections, or should this newfangled system of voting be used only in primaries?

My answer to that question is “no” — but RCV may have some benefit in open primaries where both Democrats and Republicans select a nominee. It is definitely not suitable for local races.

I’ll go into more detail later, but my main concern is that it would be unwise to introduce RCV at a time when polls show some four in 10 voters already do not trust our elections. The majority of those skeptics are pro-Donald Trump Republicans who believe the 2020 election was stolen from him. However, in addition to former President Trump’s bellyaching about his 2020 loss, there are also activists on the left who believe there is ongoing voter suppression. Ranked-choice voting could feed into that belief.

Ranked choice voting (which was also used by the Republican Party of Virginia in its last two statewide drive-thru conventions and by the 10th District’s congressional convention last spring) means the candidates are ranked in order of the voters’ choice. It is being touted for use in primaries to ensure nominees are confirmed by a majority; by states that have runoff elections to obviate people voting twice (as happened in Georgia); and in town and city council “multiple candidate” races where voters are asked to vote for up to three nominees for council and one for mayor.

In 2020, Virginia’s Democrat-controlled General Assembly passed legislation allowing ranked-choice voting and requiring the State Board of Elections to issue regulations on its implementation. The law presently allows ranked-choice voting only for “elections of members of a county board of supervisors or city council.” It cannot be used in elections for constitutional offices, school boards, or mayoral and town council races. So far, Arlington is the only Virginia county to approve ranked-choice voting for its primaries in 2023. It has not approved the method for general elections.

Today, there is a campaign afoot by the non-partisan group, UpVote Virginia (formerly known as OneVirginia), that pushed to pass the 2021 state constitutional referendum for nonpartisan redistricting. In an email last week, UpVote Virginia said it had secured support for ranked-choice voting from former Republican Governor and Senator George Allen and Democratic Representative Don Beyer at a launching event. In an August article in the Virginia Mercury, Executive Director Liz White of UpVote Viginia said the main goal of ranked-choice voting is “to build on recent reforms that have made it easier for Virginians to vote.” According to White, “democracy is failing voters. There’s extreme polarization, legislative gridlock, and no incentive at all for our elected officials to come together to solve the problems that face us.”

The Mercury added that ranked-choice voting “is often touted as a way to reduce negative campaigning and incentivize candidates to appeal to a broad cross-section of voters instead of the most fervent partisans.”

A national group, Fair Vote, based in Takoma Park, Md., is currently working with UpVote Virginia to implement ranked choice voting across our state. I am suspicious of this group’s aims on ranked-choice voting because the organization is funded largely by liberal foundations. Fair Vote also is sponsoring an initiative to double the size of the U.S. House of Representatives and allow “multiple member” House districts.

I have been involved with Virginia political campaigns for 20 years. I won election to the Leesburg Town Council three times in multiple-candidate races, as well as to the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. I also was very involved with the 2021 Virginia Republican unassembled convention. I can assure you that it was not a good example of using RCV in state-run primaries and elections, as only 32,000 delegates voted and it took several days to hand-count the paper ballots.

But even with electronic scanning and tabulating of each voter’s rankings, I cannot imagine how we would get results any sooner. Alaska’s Senate election had no declared winner until November 19, 2022. While RCV may have some benefit in primaries, Virginia has open primaries and there is no party registration requirement. Because of that, Republican county, city, and district GOP units generally use conventions or firehouse primaries to ensure Democrats don’t vote. As a result, most of the time it’s the more conservative candidates who win GOP party-run conventions, mass meetings, and firehouse primaries. And, for the Democrats, the most left-wing candidates usually win these kinds of contests.

So, the idea that ranked-choice voting will help nominate more centrists is unfounded. Whatever the voting method, candidates and their respective political parties will get their bases to vote the party sample ballot, which means voters might not be doing any ranking of other candidates.

A second issue I have with RCV is that I don’t see how it benefits local races. Thanks to Democrats in the General Assembly who in 2021 eliminated the May election option for local races so they are non-partisan, all town and city elections are now co-located on the November ballot, when there are far more people voting. Ranked-choice voting may actually lead to more under-voting (i.e., people voting for president, governor, and other up-ballot races and ignoring the local municipal races). However, if voters get their party’s sample ballot, they will just rank those candidates.

Additionally, a complicated ranked-choice ballot will consume more time at the polls, even in low-turnout primaries. Many voters will vote by mail and it’s the inordinate mail-in and early ballots that have led to a negative perception of election integrity in the U.S. It could take weeks to determine a winner, particularly if there are provisional ballots that could be disputed.

By and large, whatever the voting method, you can be assured the best-financed candidates and the political parties will figure out a way to game ranked-choice voting to their benefit – and that means independent and third-party candidates won’t get ranked. I do not see RCV limiting or ending the extremes being taken to get candidates nominated and elected. That is more the result of the nature of political campaigns, social media, and the blue and red divide. Given the current climate wherein election integrity is viewed as being low, it’s a bad idea to try to expand the use of ranked choice voting in Virginia at this time.

For a congressional analysis of RCV legal issues as it affects federal races, the Congressional Research Service has prepared an in depth look at the system’s legal challenges and considerations.

Ken Reid, lives in McLean. He has served on the Leesburg Town Council and Loudoun Board of Supervisors (2006-2017). He has attended numerous Republican county and state elections and was a Trump delegate to the 2016 and 2020 Republican National Convention. He is the author of “The Six Secrets to Winning Any Local Election – and Navigating Elected Office Once You Win.”

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37 responses to “Ranked-Choice Voting in Virginia? Not Yet (Except Maybe Primaries)”

  1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “I am suspicious of this group’s aims on ranked-choice voting because the organization is funded largely by liberal foundations”

    With that sentiment in mind, I must therefore say if Ken is against it, I am all in!

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      And yet, the empirical results shows that it promotes the middle…

      Of course, compared to the Republican candidates from current primaries, I’ll take the middle any day.

  2. Has Maine, NYC, or Alaska really benefitted from ranked choice voting. No matter how many advantages the systems are sold as having, it always seem to result in more incumbent protection.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Alaska and Maine have Independents in office. Does it count that the promise of rank-choice is, excuse the word, diversity?

      1. Both of them were incumbents in a party before being independents. Not the same thing as helping anyone other than incumbents.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          How do you come to that conclusion? Just because they’re incumbents?

        2. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          So? They’re not from the extreme of either party. That’s a win-win.

          It doesn’t help either party, and promotes the middle.

          1. That is how top two primaries were sold in California and all it did was turn into incumbent protection.

          2. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            So? As long as they’re moderates, what do you care? Gerrymandering does more than rank-choice to protect seats.

            You must be one of those “term limit” types. I’d rather have mandatory retirement ages for any current appointments than term limits.

          3. If the current way of drawing districts is bad, what should replace it. No matter how districts are drawn, one party or the other will benefit.

          4. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            That’s not true. If you seek nearly equal representation, you can achieve it.

          5. Districts are drawn to either be competitive which would require even more bizarre shapes. Or district could be drawn as compact as possible which would result in more D-40 districts along with a lot more R+10 districts, Or districts could drawn to ensure that certain racial and ethnic groups are assured of winning a certain amount of seats but would help Democrats while hurting Republicans. I suspect that most progressives want the third choice.

          6. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Yeah, but the real criterion is to keep the home addresses of the incumbents in their current district.

          7. David Trone moved to get into a district he could win. Several incumbents lost in 2022 due to refusing to move to stay with most of their old districts. See NY and WV.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Alaska and Maine have Independents in office. Does it count that the promise of rank-choice is, excuse the word, diversity?

    3. Good point. I should have mentioned that in my article. Incumbents with name recognition also have a bigger advantage in local elections.

  3. Virginia Gentleman Avatar
    Virginia Gentleman

    Isn’t it time for America to get comfortable with electronic voting from any device available? Realizing public trust in elections is likely at an all time high, transparency is possibly a way forward. isn’t it time to work on solutions that will authenticate a citizen’s identity, receive and confirm the vote, provide a response that the vote has been cast, and then provide a mechanism for that person to “audit” the results to find the individual vote cast? This is not a difficult process. Public confidence in the process is critical and security threats would be astronomical. But, paper voting has problems as well. Isn’t it time to look at this problem differently?

  4. dave schutz Avatar
    dave schutz

    Years ago I was a voter in Cambridge Mass. Cambridge has had ranked choice voting since the 40s, and I thought it worked very well. We ended up with representatives of all the main voter communities in the city on the City Council and they had to work out their differences in public view, and to compromise. I would very much like to see ranked choice used in general elections, primaries could be made unnecessary as well. We have some real clown car primaries coming up in VA as the results of redistricting push people into new districts, ranked choice lessens the chance that a very eccentric candidate gets the nod.

    1. In response, I would say there’s a big difference between liberal (and i would think, mostly Democrat) Cambridge MA and many of Virginia’s couinties and municipalities, which are purple and you have competitive races for city/town council and county supervisor. and, if this was “several years ago,” it predates the current polarized political climate we live in, and I do not see how RCV changes that if candidates and political parties will tell (through their sample ballots) voters to JUST vote for THEIR candidates.

      1. Here is some recent polling data from Utah when they had it used in a number of their municipalities. https://fairvote.org/survey-utahns-love-ranked-choice-voting/

  5. There are a number of mistakes in this piece:

    – advocates (myself included) do not say it promotes centrist candidates. Rather, we say consensus candidates. I wouldn’t say that LG Sears was the moderate candidate in the LG nomination contest. And the conservative Governor of Alaska beat off a challenge from a former Governor of Alaska who is a moderate in their recent RCV race. There is surely a correlation between consensus candidates and moderate candidates, but it’s not 1:1 and one shouldn’t be confused with the other.

    – “largely funded by liberal foundations” is simply not an accurate statement about FairVote. I work there. It’s just not true and the author is a bit disingenuous here and cites zero facts to support his cause.

    – the author cites no data for why it shouldn’t be used in local races other than there might be an undervote (which happens now…so data to support this? it doesn’t exist to support this conclusion). And in local races we often have several candidates running for a council seat or for mayor (which the pilot program should be expanded to cover) and it’s perfect for ranked choice voting unless you like candidates winning multi-candidate races with 30% of the vote. I don’t like that because it means that 70% of the vote preferred someone else.

    – the author also says it takes a long time to count ballots. That’s true but it’s not because of ranked choice voting. It’s because of mail voting requirements that allow postmarked-by-election-day mail to come in late. Alaska has a slow postal system so it takes them three weeks to count. But that’s not ranked choice voting.

    – the author also says well financed candidates will find a way to game the system. That’s actually not true. It’s nearly impossible in ranked choice voting elections to game it. And our current system is rife with those tactics. Many times Dems in Montana will recruit a libertarian (and fund them) to peel votes away from a Republican. Or the DCCC will fund MAGA candidates in GOP primaries. Republicans will do similar when they have an opportunity. Ranked choice voting makes those meddling tactics moot. If there are other ways to meddle the author doesn’t mention them and I’m unaware of them.

    I appreciate the author’s interest in the subject. Some of the thoughts expressed here are just lacking data to support his conclusions. And an actual examination of the data would show that those concerns sound valid but the data doesn’t bear it out.

    Since I’ve spent some time here poking holes in arguments made here, I’m happy to buy you a cup of coffee, Ken, and provide some data and studies to back up my points.

  6. We already have rank choices in our elections, don’t we?

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Pretty rank most times.

  7. If you want an end to two-party rule, then something has to change as First Past the Post just treats third parties as spoilers for candidates that align more closely to them in politics. It’s why Trump and Sinema have become such liabilities for their respective parties, as the threat of primarying either of them carries the risk of a third-party run splitting the vote. So they can effectively hold their parties hostage in a way that ranked voting can block.

    1. I do not see an end to two-party domination and so you know, other democracies have only two serious parties. We had an independent like Sinema on our town council when I served and was often the pivotal vote . She was the last independent elected to office in Leesburg (2012) because town elections are on the November ballot and both political parties endorse candidates and make voters aware of that on their respective sample ballots. So, a lot of voters are not going to spend the time ranking lesser known independent candidates. all RCV will do is add to the time voters are voting and maybe create more an undervote. As for Trump and third parties — the electoral college takes care of that. No third party candidate has won electors since George Wallace in 1968. A Trump third party run will only kill chances for Republicans and he doesn[t care as long as he feels relevant and in the news

  8. Paul Sweet Avatar

    Ranked Choice Voting probably works best in primaries where there are several candidates and the party needs to select the candidate with the widest support.

    The main value of RCV in a general election is you could make a fringe candidate your first choice, and a party candidate who stands a better chance as your second choice. I think a lot of people would be surprised at how well a Libertarian or Green Party candidate would be if people weren’t afraid that voting for them would help the candidate they were opposed to.

    I’m not sure if having more than one, or possibly two, backup choices wouldn’t get too confusing for a lot of voters.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      I see your point although I don’t see the Libertarian or Green Party candidate winning.

      Take a three candidate race – one Republican, one Democrat and one Libertarian.

      30% of the voters, feeling emboldened, put the Libertarian on top. Of these voters, 60% put the Republican second while 40% put the Democrat second.

      Of those not putting the Libertarian on top – 35% put the Republican on top and 35% put the Democrat on top.

      Nobody has 50% in the first round.

      The second round has the Republican with 53% (the 35% plus 60% of the 30% who put the Libertarian on top). The Democrat gets 47%.

      The Republican wins.

      Is your point that the 30% vote for the Libertarian would send a message?

  9. Deckplates Avatar

    Ranked Choice is not the solution for voters being unhappy with election integrity. Nor does it provide an improvement in options. It is just a distraction.

    Talking with voters from Alaska, their largest concern is complexity, and confusion. Let’s face it, people do not research the candidates, and many times they vote on emotion. Having better candidates compete for election provides better results. Having more candidates, on election day, most probably will always create difficulties in discerning the difference or key attributes. Alaska’s Ranked Choice system does not improve the system, nor does it provide more “fairness” to candidates.

    Let’s improve the trust in our Virginia voting system, by ensuring that only eligible people vote, and votes are counted correctly.

    1. “voters are dumb” is one way to view our republic…

  10. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    RCV seems like flavor of the era. Not sure if it can last long term.
    RCV is mixed bag for me. Next time around produced Glen, Winsome, and Miyares. Out of this group 2 out of three ain’t bad. Meatloaf explains it best:

    1. how was Riggleman an RCV election? it was a long-drawn out caucus.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        Correct. I misremembered applying to vote in a convention I had to drive thru to cast a ballot.

  11. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    Voters have been ignored from the ratification of the Constitution with the Electoral College. Perhaps the most significant recent event to empower voters was one person, one vote. RCV adds little to the voter arsenal and may be of benefit in primaries. Clear binary choices in general elections affords voters greater authority and clarity with respect to political party policies. If reformers were dedicated to empowering voters and enhancing the voter-representative relationship, a unicameral legislature combined with term limits and staggered classes of legislators (a la the US Senate) would offer voters greater actual control. One voter, one legislator.

  12. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    The ranked-choice authorization is basically a pilot project. It expires in 2031. I see nothing wrong in trying something out, on a limited basis, to see how it works. No locality is required to utilize the system.

    1. Indeed, no community is required, but my guess is only the liberal cities and town will adopt it and that is the goal — to shut out conservative candidates. 2031 is a long, long time, Between now and then, Democrats could regain control of the GA mandate it based on how “great}” it does in a few local races — unless BLM and NAACP types feel it’s a form of voter suppression. Democrats did this by removing the local option to have elections in May Again, RCV can be gamed by any party to their advantage and if the Democrats see an advantage, the GOP will oppose, and vice versa. The goal of my article was to put something out there for people to consider the negatives consequences as there is a well funded group out there making it look all positive

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