The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Montgomery County should adopt ranked-choice voting. So should everyplace else.

A volunteer disinfects a Montgomery County polling station in Wheaton on Nov. 3, 2022. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
3 min

Ranked-choice voting — in which voters cast their ballots not for a single candidate, but rank them in order of preference — is a better way of assuring that election results reflect what the public really wants. That is especially true when there is a large field to choose from, because it makes it less likely that a fringe actor will win.

More places are using it. It worked in New York, where Eric Adams emerged from the crowded 2021 Democratic mayoral primary as the most broadly acceptable candidate. It worked in Alaska, where former governor Sarah Palin lost a House seat last year to Rep. Mary Peltola (D), a candidate who had wider appeal across the state.

It can work in Montgomery County, too — that is, if state legislators in Annapolis finally allow the county to adopt the voting method.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary in the liberal enclave is almost guaranteed to win the general election, encouraging many candidates to seek the nomination. The primary vote is liable to split many ways, allowing a candidate with narrow support to grab the nomination and, therefore, the office. A subset of a subset of the electorate gets to make the choice. In 2018, County Executive Marc Elrich won the nomination for his job with 29 percent of the Democratic primary vote, edging rival David Blair by 77 votes. In 2022, Mr. Elrich won the Democratic primary with 39 percent of the vote, up only 32 votes over Mr. Blair. If ranked-choice voting had been in place, residents could have been reassured that the winner had broad support in the county.

Instead of voting for only one candidate, voters rank the candidates — first, second, third, etc. If no one wins more than 50 percent of the first-choice vote, the lowest-scoring candidate’s votes are distributed to those voters’ second choice. Then the same with the next lowest-scoring candidate, until someone secures a majority of votes. Not only does this reduce the chance that a fringe candidate might succeed, it encourages voters to listen to the full field of candidates — and candidates to campaign with more positive messages, lest they alienate another candidate’s supporters.

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Arlington County is trying ranked-choice voting in June in primary races for county board seats. Montgomery County officials have tried for years to institute ranked-choice voting for local candidates. But the county needs Annapolis’s permission to proceed. This year, it should finally get the go-ahead. The House of Delegates’ Ways and Means Committee held a hearing last month on a bill that would give Montgomery the needed permission. The state legislature should make this a priority.

Other places should adopt ranked-choice voting, too. Nevadans voted last year to institute the voting method in 2026. It will take persuasion to spread further. Some Republicans oppose ranked-choice voting because they fear it will hurt their candidates’ chances. This amounts to an admission that they believe their candidates are less broadly acceptable to voters. It’s also an assertion without evidence. Republicans in the United States and conservatives around the world have prospered in ranked-choice voting systems, the Cato Institute’s Walter Olson points out.

U.S. elections — for the lowest office to the highest — can be better. Ranked-choice voting is one way to start.

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