(Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

A small but growing election-reform movement is pushing to give Montgomery County lawmakers the power to create a new voting system in the state’s most populous jurisdiction.

“Ranked-choice voting,” also known as instant-runoff voting, would give voters more power, advocates say, by allowing them to rank their candidates in order of preference. It also could lessen voter frustration in extremely crowded races, such as this year’s at-large council contest in Montgomery, in which a whopping 33 candidates competed for four spots in the June Democratic primary.

But researchers say the ranked-choice system can be confusing and increases ballot errors, leading to a higher number of votes being discounted. Studies show low-information voters and marginalized groups are at a disadvantage with ranked-choice voting, which can suppress turnout among specific racial groups.

Four states and more than 18 cities across the country — including Takoma Park, Md., in southeastern Montgomery — have adopted ranked-choice voting in their elections.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) and Council President Nancy Navarro (D-
District 4) support a proposed bill in Annapolis that would allow the council to decide whether to implement some form of the system for local elections in the county of 1.1 million residents.

“Ranked-choice voting is simple and intuitive,” Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Mongtomery), one of the bill sponsors, said at a public hearing Monday night, noting that people select their second choice when their first choice is unavailable in many other decisions. “We all do it every day.”


State Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery) (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

Here’s how ranked-choice works: Instead of marking their ballots only with their top choice for a given office, voters also note their second, third or possibly fourth choice for that same position.

To win outright, a candidate must garner more than 50 percent of the vote. If the first-place finisher falls short, the election goes to a second round.

In the second round, the last-place finisher is eliminated, and anyone who voted for that candidate has their second- and third-choice votes redistributed to the other finishers. This process continues until one candidate has a clear majority of votes.

Montgomery County activists say the system is better than what happened in this year’s Democratic primary, when the sheer number of candidates allowed at-large council hopefuls to win the nomination with as little as 7.4 percent of the vote.

“We started realizing that there has to be something better. This isn’t working,” said Michelle C. Whittaker of Ranked Choice Voting for Maryland, who also managed a campaign for one of the 33 at-large candidates.

Advocates say ranked-choice voting guarantees that the winning candidate is supported by a majority of voters — even if they weren’t the first choice for all of them. As a result, the elected leader has a clear mandate, they say.

The system is popular among good-government advocates, progressives and members of smaller political parties, who say exit polling shows it increases voter turnout. Ranked-choice voting also encourages candidates to run civilized campaigns and appeal to broader constituencies, and means voters don’t have to choose “between the lesser of two evils,” said Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart, whose city adopted the system in 2007.

Lobbying group FairVote, which is promoting the system nationwide, is based in Takoma Park.

Bill sponsor Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) said a ranked system would help the county avoid getting stuck with candidates who win with a small fraction of the vote and may have been less popular than other candidates, once second, third and fourth choices were taken into account.

But researchers studying the system in San Francisco, where ranked-choice voting has existed for more than 20 years, and in Maine, which has used ranked-choice voting for some local contests since 2010 and tried it for a congressional race for the first time this year, say the benefits of ranked-choice voting are limited.

“Changing the rules isn’t going to necessarily change the outcomes,” said Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University. “People should be aware of the limits and weigh those with the possible negative consequences.”

Ohio State University professor Vladimir Kogan studied four races in which the system was used, including the 2010 Oakland, Calif., mayoral race. He found that candidates struggled to win majorities and that huge numbers of ballots had to be discarded in the redistribution process.

In a few other races, the first-place finisher won a plurality of votes and was defeated because the next runner-up collected more votes in the runoff rounds, causing voters to question the election’s legitimacy, experts said.

In Maine, Republican congressional candidate Bruce Poliquin won the popular vote but lost to Democrat Jared Golden after ­second-choice votes were counted.

Poliquin challenged the voting rules in court as unconstitutional, but the judge tossed the case. Poliquin is appealing.

University of Maryland professor James Gimpel, who testified on Poliquin’s behalf, said voter dissatisfaction is why the citizens of Burlington, Vt., repealed ranked-choice voting in 2010.

“They wound up with a result where the candidate with the most first-choice votes didn’t win,” he said. “They felt like the wrong person had won.”

Advocates such as Navarro, the council president, said that she thinks the system can fit Montgomery’s needs well but that a long conversation lies ahead on how best to tailor it to the benefit of every voter.

“It’s always about the details,” Navarro said. “It’s important to examine every possible best practice to make sure outcomes reflect voter desires.”