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Arlington remains guinea pig for ranked-choice voting in Virginia

Other localities keep watching, but non has yet dived in to change from winner-take-all formate

The eyes of Virginia, and beyond, are on Arlington. At least when it comes to the commonwealth’s first ranked-choice general-election contest, to be held for Arlington County Board in the fall.

Election officials, in Virginia and across the nation and globe, are keeping in touch with their Arlington counterparts as the preparations move forward, said Gretchen Reinemeyer, Arlington’s elections director, during a presentation to the Kiwanis Club of South Arlington on May 16.

“Charlottesville is very interested,” she cited as one example.

But Arlington appears likely to be the only Virginia jurisdiction to hold a ranked-choice election this year, in part because other localities may be skittish about introducing the new format on top of a high-turnout presidential election and in part because few localities are like Arlington, which has at least one election for its governing body on the ballot every single  year.

(While Virginia law recently was changed to allow ranked-choice elections for governing bodies such as boards of supervisors and city councils, all other elections must be held under the traditional winner-take-all format. Efforts in the General Assembly this year to extend ranked-choice elections to other races failed.)

In the early months of 2023, Reinemeyer – who has been elections chief since 2019 – and her staff gave multiple presentations explaining the ranked-choice process, which was used in the June Democratic primary to select two County Board nominees from a field of six. The format was not used for the November 2023 County Board general election, but was brought back by the County Board in 2024 for both the June 18 Democratic primary (with a field of five) and for the Nov. 5 general election.

For election officials, the reality is that despite the news coverage the issue has garnered, a large percentage of Arlington residents may have no idea either of the change of election format or its intricacies.

“Anything we can do to get in front of the voters, we need to do,” Reinemeyer told the Kiwanians. “We need help trying to educate.”

Last year’s efforts sometimes resulted in elections staff’s falling victim to blame-the-messenger syndrome. They received grief at some gatherings for a change in format that some in the community decidedly do not like – even though it was the General Assembly, County Board and Virginia Department of Elections that had mandated the process go forward.

Reinemeyer told Kiwanians she tried not to take the criticism of the format change personally. “We’re not here to make you like it,” she said of the voting change, but rather to understand it.

Reinemeyer has been researching the history of ranked-choice voting, which had a brief surge in popularity among some states (though not Virginia) during the early part of the 20th century. Eventually, the ardor cooled, although today activists are pushing the concept  again.

Whether it will take hold remains an open question. Despite initial successes, some areas that previously adopted the format seem to be having buyer’s remorse, and splits have emerged among advocates who favor specific types of ranked-choice voting but not others.