Party in Major Virginia County Uses Instant Runoff Voting – and Voters Like It

by Grace Ramsey // Published December 5, 2014
Dave Leichtman

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This year, Virginia’s Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) successfully implemented ranked choice voting (which they refer to as “instant runoff voting”), to select nominees for three special elections.

The ACDC decided to make the switch for two primary reasons (pun intended) - to ensure the nomination of a consensus winner and to encourage positive campaigning.  Leaders in the ACDC have expressed their satisfaction with instant runoff voting and – according to an exit poll conducted by FairVote this May – voters liked it too. All three primary contests had strong turnout with thousands of voters participating, and one contest served to nominate a candidate for state legislature who now is serving in the Virginia Assembly.

Instant runoff voting (IRV) is a proven system used by numerous cities, political parties, organizations and universities across the country, and the globe, to conduct elections. Instead of selecting just one candidate, voters are able to rank candidates in order of preference. Then those rankings are used to elect candidates who build the broadest base of support by combining strong first choice support with the ability to earn backup support (second, third, and so on) support as well. Recommended by Robert’s Rules of Order for elections where repeated voting is not feasible and widely used for non-governmental elections, IRV is particularly well-suited for reflecting group consensus.  

Like many nomination contests in Virginia, Arlington Democrats do not have a taxpayer-financed primary. Instead, the party runs its own contest. Some parties will nominate candidates at a convention, but that can limit participation to those able to spend hours on a nomination. More frequently, parties are using what is called “firehouse primaries” – that is, privately administered nomination contests.

When a party nominates candidates, it is valuable 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 or repeated voting, primary elections with more than two candidates can result in a fractured field and winners advancing to the general election with a weak mandate from the party.  

In addition to weak mandates, non-IRV elections create a zero sum game: in order to win, one must take votes from opponents. In these elections, candidates benefit from negative campaigning. As Dave Leichtman, the DPVA Vice-chair for Tech and Communications said, “One of the most destructive aspects of a primary campaign can often be the destructive pitting of mostly-like-minded individuals against each other.” While negative campaigning can be effective, in the end it can produce weak winners and a divided party.

The ACDC recognized IRV’s ability to provide candidates incentive to reach out beyond their base, asking for second and third choices. ACDC Chairman Kip Malinosky said the ACDC switched to IRV because “we want to encourage learning about other candidates. It helps empower Democratic voters and it encourages positive campaigns.” When candidates are interacting with the supporters of other candidates for second and third choices, they benefit from finding common ground with potential voters rather than alienating them with divisive tactics. This creates winners who are in touch with the electorate and advance to general elections with a strong mandate from the party.

In May of this year, the ACDC allowed FairVote to observe their unassembled caucus to endorse a candidate to fill a vacancy on the Arlington County School Board, with three candidates seeking the endorsement. Over ten hours of voting, Arlington 23,723 Arlington Democrats participated in the unassembled caucus. Barbara Kanninen won the contest in the second 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.

FairVote conducted an exit survey of participants to gauge how voters understood and perceived the use of IRV in this contest. FairVote staff and volunteers were extremely impressed with the level of engagement and excitement from participants in the caucus and were able to speak to over 1,000 voters as they were leaving the polls. Here are some highlights from our findings:


Voters Understanding of IRV

  • 85% of respondents found ranking candidates easy and 11% of respondent said that ranking was neither easy nor difficult.
  • 70% of respondents said that they understood IRV very well, 23% of respondents said they understood IRV somewhat well.
  • 88% of respondents found the instructions on the ballot very easy to understand.
  • 88% of respondents said that they ranked at least 2 candidates on their ballot.
  • 97% of the voters who participated in the caucus had their vote continue into the final round out counting.


Perceptions of IRV

  • 49% of respondents said that there was less criticism in this race, compared to only 2% that thought there was more criticism.
  • 26% of respondents said that they were more inclined to vote for their most preferred candidate as opposed to 3% who said they were less likely to vote for their favorite candidate.
  • 60% of respondents support the ACDC using IRV for nominations, 32% of respondents had no opinion.
  • 73% of respondents would favor using IRV for state and congressional primaries.


These results show that voters overwhelmingly understand and engage with IRV. Voters see the value of building consensus and a majority of respondents see the value of continued, even expanded, use of the system. Of all of the participants in the caucus 97% of ballots counted for a candidate in the final round of counting. To put it simply – the voters got it, and they liked it.

Barbara Kanninen went on to win the special election and will begin her four-year term on the Arlington County School Board in January of 2015. Other uses of IRV included a firehouse primary in February to nominate a candidate for the county’s board of supervisors and a July firehouse primary – done in coordination with Fairfax County Democrats – to nominate a candidate for a special election for the House of Delegates. In this contest seven candidates ran, with Rip Sullivan earning a strong majority vote.

A combination of factors – large turnout of informed voters, candidates focusing on issues and uniting after a close contest, and a strong winner heading into the general election – help explain why Arlington Democrats seem so pleased with IRV and why many other local parties have moved to adopt it, including Republicans in Utah. We recommend that other state and local parties take notice, especially when they administer their own elections and can quickly implement this time-tested, effective, and common-sense way of voting.

Take a look at our flyer about instant runoff voting in Arlington.