The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Get used to ranked-choice voting. It works.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin works the line of cars as the Virginia GOP holds a drive-through primary in Annandale on May 8. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

There was much about last weekend’s “unassembled” Virginia Republican convention that was strange and novel.

Rather than gathering in one place, as they normally do to pick their nominees for statewide office in the November election, Virginia’s GOP voters, in a nod to pandemic reality, cast their ballots at 39 drive-through locations.

The event saw confusion and paranoia about security, unsurprising in a party where a majority has bought Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. Two campaigns tailed a car carrying ballots from Prince William County to the tabulation center in Richmond because they did not trust the couriers appointed by the state party. At one point, a hotel housekeeper delivering refreshments broke a taped seal around the ballroom where ballots were stored, throwing everyone into a panic and leading to a two-hour delay in the counting process.

But one innovation went smoothly: ranked-choice voting, an increasingly popular election method in which, rather than picking one candidate from the ballot, voters rank them in order of preference. The candidate who gets the fewest votes is eliminated, and the ballots of his or her supporters are then redistributed among the contenders who were their second choices, and the process is repeated until someone wins by topping 50 percent.

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New York City will be using the same procedure for the first time this year in its local elections, which will be the biggest-ever test of the concept. That it might already be making Gotham’s famously brutal politics a tad less negative is evidenced by the fact that leading mayoral contender Andrew Yang has announced that his rival Kathryn Garcia would be his own second choice if he doesn’t win. Some progressive political organizations, such as the Working Families Party, are also announcing their first, second and third choices in their endorsements for the June 22 Democratic primary, rather than backing a single contender.

For Virginia Republicans, the process of elimination in a seven-candidate gubernatorial field required six rounds of ballot counting and produced GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin, a former private-equity executive and political newcomer. He has embraced Trump and the lies the former president told about the 2020 election but was less bombastic about it than some of his rivals. No one would be surprised if Youngkin grew more moderate in his tone going into the general election, if only because no Republican has been elected to statewide office in Virginia since 2009.

Ranked-choice voting has much to recommend it. Since being someone’s second choice can help pave the way to victory, it encourages candidates to try to broaden their appeal and achieve consensus.

And thoughtful voters may feel less constrained from supporting candidates whose ideas and values they share, but who they also fear might end up being the “spoilers” who allow someone they truly despise to win.

At a moment when GOP legislatures are looking suspiciously at other modern forms of voting, such as mail-in balloting, “it is significant that Republicans are finding value in a reform,” noted Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America, an organization that seeks to make politics less partisan.

Troiano said Georgia’s controversial new election law, which narrows the time between a general election and a runoff, has a provision in which military and overseas ballots will be cast with ranked-choice voting.

And just this week, ruby-red Utah announced that nearly two dozen of its municipalities opted to try the process this year under a pilot program in that state; only two had done so when the experiment launched in 2019.

A new study by FairVote.org, another organization that has been touting the system, finds tentative evidence that non-White candidates — and voters — also benefit under ranked-choice voting. Examining instances in which ranked-choice voting has been used, the group found “winning candidates of color, particularly those who are Black or Hispanic/Latino, grew their vote totals between the first and final ballot rounds at a higher rate than winning White candidates.”

While changing the manner in which we vote is not the cure to the deep partisan and ideological divides that make the country’s electoral environment so toxic, and have undermined trust in our democratic processes, it is good to see that fresh thinking still has a place in politics.

Read more:

Norman Leahy: The Virginia GOP exorcised a few political ghosts

The Post’s View: Virginia Republicans just gave themselves a chance to win back the governorship

Greg Sargent: In Virginia, Biden and Democrats face a major test

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Ranked-choice voting is already changing politics for the better

Liz Cheney: The GOP is at a turning point. History is watching us.

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