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Update: Was vote against ranked-choice merely political expediency?

Cynics see ulterior motive in County Board decision; board members say more work is needed

They gussied it up with platitudes and justifications, but in the end, was the decision by Arlington County Board members not to move forward with ranked-choice voting in November simply an act of political expediency?

Or was it a case of a system that, while workable in the theoretical realm, isn’t ready for prime time and needs some kinks worked out?

Either way – or perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle – County Board members opted July 15 to stick with the traditional winner-take-all method of counting votes in the County Board general election, after having implemented ranked-choice voting – or “RCV” – for the June 20 primary that selected Democratic nominees in that race.

“I’m not ready,” said County Board member Libby Garvey, who voiced the concerns of many that, inadvertently perhaps, the method of counting votes (more on that below) effectively disenfranchised some voters and may have cost one candidate a legitimate route to victory.

Having moved forward without having “deeply and fully considered the tabulation process” would be a disservice to the community and to candidates, Garvey’s colleague, Matt de Ferranti, said. Another board member, Takis Karantonis, said he supported the concept of ranked-choice voting, but not until there is more buy-in among the community.

“I need to see two-thirds majority in agreement,” he said, believing ultimately that will be achieved.

(Karantonis owes his current position to ranked-choice voting; in a summer-of-2020 Democratic caucus to select a contender in the race to fill the seat of the late County Board member Erik Gutshall, he trailed School Board member Barbara Kanninen in the first round, but ultimately picked up enough votes from also-ran candidates to leapfrog her and win the nomination.)

No vote actually was taken by the board on the matter at the July 15 meeting, as one only would have been required had the switch to ranked-choice been desired. All four board members, Democrats one and all, through their comments intimated they were not ready to go that route.

The unanimous July 15 decision was not necessarily a surprise. Those with a cynical bent or Machiavellian instincts might argue, and some are, that holding the primary under the ranked-choice model was a good way to ensure, as much as possible, the outcome Arlington’s powers-that-be wanted in the primary.

Extending it to the general election would, however, potentially put at risk the party’s lock on power in local politics, if either the Republican candidate or perennial independent Audrey Clement could cobble together a coalition and break the Democratic County Board oligarchy that has been in place, with only a few exceptions, for nearly four decades.

One might think advocates for the change in process would be incensed that it is not moving ahead for now. But publicly, they held their fire, perhaps not wishing to bite the hand that ultimately will decide on whether the measure is ever implemented at the local level.

“Arlington’s experiment with ranked-choice voting was a success every step of the way,” said Liz White, director of UpVote, an advocacy group that wants to see the voting method changed. “The pilot program . . . [was] implemented without any complaints on Election Day.”

The departure of Cristol in early July for a job with a Tysons advocacy group may have denuded the County Board of its most ardent supporter of ranked-choice voting. Cristol vigorously promoted the idea last year, when it was implemented for the primary. Meanwhile, watching the process play out are members of the General Assembly, who during the brief window of total Democratic control several years ago gave Virginia localities the option of moving to a ranked-choice vote, albeit only for governing-body elections.

Natalie Roy probably will remember Arlington’s 2023 political experiment for a long time. One of the six candidates running in the Democratic primary – and the one most vigorously opposed to the County Board’s Missing Middle housing policy – she placed second in the first round of voting, but when other candidates fell out through the ranked-choice process, Roy could only stand by and watch as pro-Missing Middle candidate Maureen Coffey received their second- and third-votes and moved past her to score (with Susan Cunningham) one of the two nominations.

Roy was, in some ways, a victim of the way the system was designed by state election officials – and the fact that this first election was run with two available seats but not in two separate races. And therein may lie its Achilles’ heel and what cost Roy the race.

Though not running on a ticket with Cunningham (who herself has questions about Missing Middle but isn’t adamantly opposed), Roy was somewhat close to her on many issues. But while Coffey picked up the second-place and third-place votes of other candidates (pro-Missing Middlers Jonathan Dromgoole, Tony Weaver and J.D. Spain Sr.) as they were eliminated from contention, the second-place votes on ballots cast for Cunningham were never counted because she was never eliminated.

“A lot of people who voted for Susan, their second choice was Natalie – those never got to Natalie,” Garvey said. “None of her second choices got counted. Are we comfortable with that? Maybe. But maybe not.”

Exactly how many voters who had Cunningham as their first choice and Roy as their second isn’t known, since all the computer data from the primary is under lock and key at the office of Clerk of the Circuit Court until the deadline for any challenges to the results runs out.

Roy said the way Virginia, and Arlington, is implementing the process has its flaws, but those could be ironed out. She voiced greater concern about the seeming haphazard nature of decision-making by County Board members.

“RCV is not a switch that can be turned on and off. You either do it and do it right, or don’t,” she said. “If the county decides to move forward with RCV, then it should be done for every election, not just when it is politically expedient.”