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Inside NOVA: Instant-runoff measure could be headed back to General Assembly in 2019 Print

BY: Scott McCaffrey

Created: December 17, 2018

Could Arlington County Board elections in 2019 be held under a new type of voting scheme?

That would be the case if legislation similar to that proposed in the 2018 General Assembly session again heads down to Richmond and makes it into law.

Last year, Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th) patroned legislation that would have allowed to “instant-runoff” voting in Arlington County Board (and only Arlington County Board) races, both for primaries and general elections.

The method, currently in use by the Arlington County Democratic Committee when it holds nominating caucuses, allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference.

If four candidates were vying for a single County Board seat, voters could (but would not be required to) rank them 1-2-3-4 in order of preference. If no candidate received at least 50 percent of the vote in the first round, the lowest-finishing candidate would be eliminated and his/her votes would be reallocated as directed by each voter’s preferences. The process would be repeated until one candidate received a majority.

Hope believes this method of election would promote more positive campaigning, and would eliminate the possibility that a fringe candidate could sneak into office in a large field of contenders.

His bill did surprisingly well for a first-year measure, clearing the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns on a 14-8 vote late in the session before moving to the House floor. And then came the stumbling block: On a party-line vote, Republicans sent the measure to the House Committee on Privileges & Elections, where it died before getting a hearing.

Hope’s 2018 measure was focused only on the Arlington County Board; it would not have impacted any other races or any other jurisdictions. (Another instant-runoff bill, patroned by Republican Del. Nick Freitas, would have applied to statewide, congressional and legislative races – though not local elections. It was killed in the House Committee on Appropriations.)

As for 2019? Hope said he aims to convince the Virginia Department of Elections that its projected cost to implement the Arlington-only measure – $1 million – was exaggerated.

“If I can get the Department of Elections to understand my bill is more narrow and should only impact our local Electoral Board and not the state, I will bring it back,” Hope told the Sun Gazette.

In the 2018 session, there was no companion to Hope’s bill in the state Senate. But in a meeting with Arlington County Board members, state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30th) said he would be interested in teaming up with Hope and presenting a bill in the upper chamber.

Members of the Arlington Electoral Board and elections office have expressed a number of concerns, but acknowledge that the instant-runoff method could be implemented.

According to election officials, only two County Board general-election races over the past two decades have ended with the winning candidate receiving less than a majority of votes cast.

And, thus far in Arlington County Democratic Committee caucuses where the method has been used, the candidate leading in the first round of a multi-candidate race ended up on top after the instant-runoff process was triggered. But that is not a guarantee: It is possible that candidates who garner the most votes on the first round might not end up the victor, as is the case in traditional voting.

Hope’s 2018 bill would have given the County Board the power to change to instant-runoff voting, but did not require it to do so.