The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As crowded D.C. primary approaches, advocates push ranked-choice voting

A voter waits for her family members to finish voting at Shepherd Elementary School in D.C. in 2018. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
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When D.C. voters look at their ballots for this month’s Democratic primary, they’ll have to choose one candidate in each race, sometimes from a long list — in Ward 3, nine people are on the ballot for the council seat; in Ward 5, seven people; citywide, four people seek an at-large seat.

Narrowing it down to one can lead to strategic thinking among some voters — like those who favor a lesser-known candidate, but end up voting for the person they think has a better chance of defeating their least favorite in the race.

Advocates who are pushing a bill that would change D.C.’s election law to allow ranked-choice voting point to the June 21 primary as a good example of why they think it would be a better system.

“Voters have to decide who is electable, who is the person that might be splitting the vote, I really like this person but they’re probably not a viable candidate,” said Brianna McGowan, who runs the organization Delicious Democracy. “Voters have this weird mental calculus to figure out where their vote is going to matter instead of just focusing on what matters to them and the issues in their community. Ranked-choice voting would totally shift the conversation.”

Ranked-choice voting recently was adopted in New York City for its last mayoral election and is in use in other cities nationwide. How it works: Voters list their preferred candidates in order, from most favorite to least favorite. On election night, every voter’s first choice is counted up — and if no candidate gets more than half the first-choice votes, the tabulators drop the candidate who received the fewest votes.

For those voters whose first choice was struck, the tabulator then counts their second choices. The process keeps going until one candidate wins a majority.

While that might seem complicated, the current primary in D.C., advocates say, is a real-life example of why that system might work better.

With nine people running in Ward 3, Sean Dugar — who advocates for ranked-choice voting at the organization More Voice DC — notes: “Someone may win with only 15 percent of voters having voted for them.”

The winners of the November general election will be able to weigh in on the council’s hotly debated bill to implement ranked-choice voting.

D.C. debates whether to switch to a ranked-choice voting system

Some of this year’s candidates can see how their elections could go differently if ranked-choice voting were instituted in the District — such as in the at-large council race, where three candidates are seeking to oust incumbent Anita Bonds. “It’s a tool to really select candidates who are more representative of what everyone wants, versus purely who is the top vote-getter in a situation where the top vote-getter can get 21 percent and still win,” said Dexter Williams, a Democrat who is running in that race.

Before Williams decided to run against Bonds, he worked as an advocate for electoral changes like public campaign financing, which D.C. implemented before the last election and Williams is now using.

Bonds, who has been on the council for a decade, faced two challengers in her last primary election and still won 52 percent of the vote, with the two other splitting the rest nearly equally.

She opposes ranked-choice voting (and her office did not respond to inquiries from The Washington Post about the subject), while her three challengers this year all support it.

“I personally feel very strongly that it is a process to dilute parties,” Bonds said in a debate last month. D.C.’s Democratic Party also opposes the proposed ranked-choice voting bill, and a large group of party leaders have testified against it, saying that the process could confuse and disenfranchise some voters. “I believe in the one vote, one person. One person, one vote. And so to have the opportunity to say, ‘oh, maybe this person second, third,’ that does not in my opinion sit well with how people really view and value their one vote.”

Bonds’s detractors — including housing advocates displeased with her longtime leadership of the council’s housing committee — fear she is headed to another victory because her three challengers will split whatever anti-Bonds votes might be out there.

Anita Bonds, enigma of the D.C. Council

Ranked-choice voting, they say, could change that. “[Bonds is] hardly campaigning right now. I think she’s feeling very comfortable,” said McGowan, who has been door-knocking for several left-leaning candidates through the organization DC for Democracy but has not gotten involved in the at-large race. “Under ranked-choice voting, she would have to work harder and really have to gain people’s votes. I do think she could be a winner under a ranked system, but it would be a totally different campaign.”

This year’s candidates know they must win an election under the current laws if they ever want the opportunity to change the system. Williams believes that voters are frustrated with what he views as Bonds’s lack of response to residents’ inquiries and ineffectiveness at passing major legislation on the council. “What I’m hearing on the ground when I’m talking to voters is that there’s going to be a change, whether we’re using ranked-choice voting or whether we’re using our current system.”

Nate Fleming, who has won election in the past to be D.C.'s shadow representative to Congress and is now running in the at-large race, said he views himself as basically running against Bonds, not running in a four-person field. In 2014, running on a tiny budget, he came closest out of four distant challengers to unseating Bonds; this year, he has raised far more from donors, and the city is kicking in public financing dollars.

As of May 10, Bonds had outraised her opponents, with Fleming raising significantly more than Williams and Lisa Gore. Bonds had spent less than $10,000 of her campaign chest, leaving her with more than $200,000 in the bank, while Gore had spent the most, more than $102,000, and Williams and Fleming had both spent more than $55,000 and had much more than Gore left to spend.

“I hadn’t thought a lot about” ranked-choice voting, Fleming said. He touts his vigorous campaigning — along with mailers and text messages, he says he has knocked on more than 20,000 doors over the course of his near-daily canvasses. "I believe by doing that, we’re going to end up having the most votes in this race.”

When Fleming knocks on doors, some voters say they recognize his name from his gigantic sign on Capitol Hill, far larger than the yard signs pasted across the city. He starts each visit by describing his résumé — from Southeast D.C., to Morehouse College, to Berkeley Law, to a master’s degree he just completed at Harvard and a doctorate he’s close to finishing at Penn — and watches voters’ eyes widen with each school he names.

“This is a one-on-one race to me,” he said.

Of course, Gore said the same thing — she thinks it’s a two-person race, but the person other than Bonds is her, not Fleming.

“There was definitely this pressure early on to drop out and let people who other folks thought maybe had a better chance to win the race, win the race,” Gore said. “We hear that a lot about splitting the vote. Ranked-choice voting would pretty much eliminate all of that.”

As it stands, Gore said she does worry that she and the other two challengers will split the vote, giving Bonds the victory. “That’s what keeps me up at night,” she said.

She’s trying to make the case that her former job in the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general’s office makes her qualified to take over Bonds’s council role of overseeing city housing programs, a job she says Bonds is failing at because she is too cozy with the mayor.

McGowan, the ranked-choice voting advocate, pointed to endorsements as a sign that like-minded voters are torn between candidates. Groups that sometimes endorse the same candidates have spread out in this race, with Greater Greater Washington endorsing Gore, the Washington Teachers’ Union endorsing Williams and Jews United for Justice endorsing Fleming.

“You totally feel or see that there are some pretty solid, progressive people in the race who unfortunately are splitting the vote,” McGowan said. Speaking for voters who follow any of those organizations’ recommendations, she said, “It sucks that I’m voting for someone I feel doesn’t really have a chance at winning, because a lot of the candidates are splitting the vote to the point that it might just be a solid path for the incumbent to win again.”

Dugar, who has worked on elections in cities that do use ranked-choice voting, said he also hopes a new system would bring about a better attitude in D.C. politics.

“They never use the term ‘competitor.’ They say ‘my colleague in this race,’ ” Dugar said about cities where candidates are trying to win not just one vote against another person but second- or third-choice votes, as well. “You go from a place of no and a place of opposition to a place of ‘yes, and.’ Yes, that is a great idea, and here is how I would build upon it. It creates more of an aspirational campaign than the kind of mudslinging, dragging folks down, ‘your idea is horrible’ framework that we are definitely seeing in races across the District.”