And Virginia’s Jim Crow past in the last century isn’t exactly a secret, either. As recently as April of last year, a discriminatory voter identification law remained on the books.
From expanding access to early voting to creating a bipartisan commission on redistricting to instituting our own Voting Rights Act, it is impossible to ignore the progress we made to strengthen our democracy right here at home. This past year has been one of the most consequential periods in the history of the commonwealth.
With all the strides Virginia has made in the past year, one such new law was passed with comparatively little fanfare, though it could be one of the most significant: a pilot program for ranked-choice voting.
This is a very simple improvement to the way we now cast ballots. Ranked-choice voting helps elect a candidate who reflects the wishes of the majority of voters in a given election by allowing voters to rank in order of preference: first, second, third, etc.
When votes are tabulated, if the first-place candidate does not receive a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and the voters who marked that candidate as their top choice will have their second-choice votes counted instead. This instant runoff will continue until a candidate has more than half the vote, tangibly ensuring that the majority rules.
Here’s an example of how ranked-choice voting could be effective in real time: In the coming weeks, Virginia Democrats will be choosing their 2021 candidates in primary elections. This includes legislative seats as well as statewide offices such as lieutenant governor — a race with six candidates.
If votes are split evenly, there is a legitimate chance that the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor could have as little as 17 percent of the total vote. Imagine nominating a statewide candidate against whom 85 percent of the electorate voted. Ranked-choice voting would allow for a streamlined result that allows voters to vote their conscience rather than in a strategic attempt to thwart another candidate.
The ranked-choice voting bill signed into law last year serves as a starting point to make this a reality in Virginia. It allows localities to voluntarily adopt a pilot program for their local elections beginning this year.
What’s more, election experts agree that ranked-choice voting isn’t designed to be partisan. Reliably blue localities in California, Oregon and Massachusetts rely on ranked-choice voting, and Republican strongholds Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana use ranked-choice ballots for overseas voters in runoffs statewide.
In other words, this doesn’t benefit one party over another. It benefits voters. Just ask those who already use this system.
In Maine, for example, all statewide and congressional races use ranked-choice ballots, and polling has shown that more than 6 out of 10 voters want to keep the program or even expand it to other elections.
Further, 94 percent of voters in Santa Fe, N.M., said they felt satisfied with their first use of ranked-choice ballots in 2018.
Now it’s time for Virginia localities to try it for themselves. This is the first year all Virginia cities and counties can institute this useful reform as a way to make their elections better by eliminating the risk of spoilers and vote-splitting, resulting in a more representative electorate as a whole.
Virginia has done so much already to increase voter turnout by expanding ballot access and making it easy to cast votes. Let’s move a step further by changing the way our elected officials are chosen in the first place.
Ranked-choice voting will be used by the Arlington County Democrats, and it was used by the Republican Party of Virginia in its nominating elections last weekend. In the spirit of Virginia’s momentum in democracy reform, I implore local governments to move forward with this pilot program.
Even if it’s for a short amount of time, I am confident voters will embrace ranked-choice voting. If recent history is any indication, we all know what a difference a year can make.