Council briefed on ranked choice voting

Should Charlottesville switch to an alternative form of voting that proponents say could increase participation? The earliest the city could make a transition to what is known as “ranked choice voting” is in 2025, but the five-member City Council got a briefing at its meeting on August 21. 

“Instant runoff voting, or ranked choice voting, is a voting system where a voter can rank their ballots sequentially in order of preference rather than just give a single or limited number of candidates for their choice of winner,” said Taylor Yowell, the city’s registrar. 

Proponents of this method of voting argue that it can help expand the number of candidates who seek office. (view Yowell’s presentation)

The votes are counted in order and individuals who receive enough votes to pass the threshold qualify for the ballot. If there are more slots remaining, the candidate who received the fewest votes is dropped from the second round.

“The process will continue until a winner has earned over the election threshold,” Yowell said. 

That threshold depends on how many seats are available. 

This method was authorized by the General Assembly in 2020 as one of the electoral reforms introduced when Democrats held both Houses in Richmond. 

“In the session of the legislature in 2020, a bill was passed to allow ranked choice option for City Council and Board of Supervisors elections throughout the state,” said Jim Nix, one of three members of the Charlottesville Electoral Board and the only Democrat. 

In August 2011, Nix presided over the Charlottesville Democratic Party’s use of a “firehouse primary” to select its three candidates for City Council that year from seven candidates. 

“I counted the votes for it,” said Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook.

“That was fun,” Nix said. “I was there, too,” 

The contest resulted in the the nomination of Satyendra Huja to a second term as well as the first nominations for both Kathy Galvin and Dede Smith. Galvin and Huja got a plurality of votes in the first round, but Smith didn’t secure enough votes until the fifth round when she edged out Paul Beyer by 29 votes. (view the results on cvillepedia)

Nix said the legislation that passed in 2020 has a sunset date of 2031. He said Arlington used ranked-choice to select two members of its County Board in a primary race this past spring.

“It appears to have been successful,” Nix said. “The process worked as intended. The results were published quickly. Actually, too quickly, but we don’t need to go into that. The outcome was clear and unchallenged and public satisfaction was high based on the results of some online surveys that were done.” 

However, Nix said criticisms have emerged about the tabulation method that had been used and a decision has been made in Arlington County to not proceed with ranked choice in the general election.  He said one issue is that the voting software used only allowed voters three choices for the two seats. Charlottesville’s software would allow voters to rank six. 

The first time Charlottesville could use ranked choice voting would be in the June 2025 primary when the seats held by Juandiego Wade and Brian Pinkston would be up. That’s less than 22 months away! 

Yowell said only the City Council races could be conducted with ranked choice voting, and not School Board races. She said there would be a cost associated with educating the public about how the new process works, should Council decide to proceed. Yowell said the city should also update to a new version of its Hart software at a cost of around $4,000. 

For more details, view the video of the meeting on the city’s streaming service

A factor to consider and a question to you.

This year, five candidates sought three Democratic nominations for three seats on Council. Only three candidates are on the ballot. Only five people submitted paperwork to be on the School Board ballot for four seats. Only four qualified. If any locality pursues ranked choice, what steps might be taken to encourage more people to actually run? 

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the August 30, 2023 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

Additionally, this was posted during a time I’ve upgraded to a new WordPress theme. Some things may not look as they should. But, it’s a fun experiment!

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