Ranked Choice Voting Helps Arlington Democrats Choose Stronger Nominees

by Grace Ramsey // Published May 22, 2014
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More often than not, a county’s partisan primary for school board is not cause for national attention. But last weekend, we saw something worth paying attention to in Arlington, Virginia.

On Saturday, May 17, the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) held its primary election (which they call an “unassembled caucus”) to select a nominee for the vacancy left by Sally Baird on the Arlington County School Board. It was announced the evening of the election that Barbara Kanninen won the nomination 

This caucus featured a field of three strong candidates, impressive turnout, and was the second time that the ACDC selected a nominee using instant runoff voting (IRV), the form of ranked choice voting (RCV) used in a growing number of elections to select a single winner with strong consensus support. Earlier this year the ACDC used IRV in a firehouse primary to select a nominee for a special election to fill a vacancy on the Arlington County Board.

The ACDC has a record of running smooth elections, and IRV has allowed it to even better promote important democratic principles. Dave Leichtman, the Vice-Chair of Technology and Communications for the Democratic Party of Virginia, cited two major reasons for the switch to IRV. First, IRV ensures a consensus winner. Second, IRV rewards positive campaigning and disincentives negative campaigning. 

When running a partisan election, it is essential to ensure that the candidate advancing to the general election accurately represents the party. The selection of a nominee should serve to unify the party behind its candidate rather than cause internal animosity. Without IRV, primary elections with large, fractured fields can end with nominations by miniscule margins with a vast majority of voters preferring other candidates. By allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference, parties can select nominees that have built support from across the party membership. This results in sending a stronger candidate into the general election.

Non-IRV partisan primaries often hurt candidates in general elections. Non-IRV elections are a zero sum game: in order to win, one must take votes from opponents. In these elections, candidates have incentive to use negative campaigning as a means to pulling ahead of their opponents. While negative campaigning can be extremely effective, in the end it produces weak winners and a divided party. At the end of a negative primary campaign, the winning candidate is either wounded from the attacks of opponents or has alienated the supporters of opponents through negative campaign tactics. By switching to IRV, candidates have incentive to reach out beyond their base, asking for second and third choices. When candidates are interacting with the supporters of other candidates for second and third choices, they want to find common ground with potential voters rather than alienating them with divisive tactics.

Both of the ACDC elections with IRV have featured three candidates seeking nomination. Had these been non-IRV elections, the equation to win would have been simple: divide and conquer. Instead, Arlington Democrats have seen candidates running on platforms focused on what they have to offer the community rather than creating divisions between themselves and the other candidates.

In the School Board Caucus this past week, Barbara Kanninen won the nomination in the second round of counting. The three candidates ran excellent campaigns, as evidenced by the extremely close results in the first round of counting. Kanninen came in ahead of the other candidates initially but did not have a majority.

When last place candidate Greg Greenly was eliminated, Kanninen received enough second choice support to secure the nomination, even as a large portion of the Greenly supporters chose Nancy Van Doren as their second choice. All candidates quickly accepted the outcome. Van Doren immediately threw her support behind Kanninen saying “I wholeheartedly support Barbara in the upcoming general election as she faces the challenges in our school system.” Through IRV Kanninen was able to confirm that she had the most support within the party and will move on to the general election with a meaningful vote of confidence.

In both of these firehouse primaries, voter turnout was higher than many expected, and voters overwhelmingly handled the system well. In January, for example, a blog reviewing the election indicated that 99.7% of voters cast valid ballots in their very first election with IRV (even without the overvote detection of today’s sophisticated voting machines), and more than three in four voters chose to indicate a second choice.In the February firehouse primary, Alan Howze received 52% of first choices securing the nomination with a majority in the first round of counting. But even when an instant runoff is not triggered, IRV has an impact. The candidates focused their campaigns on issues rather than each other. Voters were able make their decisions based on where candidates stood on those issues, rather than feeling the need to vote strategically.

This combination of factors – a large turnout of informed voters, candidates focusing on issues and uniting after a close contest, and a result with a strong winner heading into the general election – help explain why Arlington Democrats seem so pleased with the system. We recommend that other state and local parties take notice, especially when they administer their own elections and can quickly implement this sensible way of voting.