SIX CANDIDATES are vying in Montgomery County’s upcoming primary to become the Democratic nominee for county executive. Thirty-eight candidates across all parties are running for four at-large County Council seats. It’s good that Montgomery voters won’t lack for choices, and good that so many people want to serve in public office. But there’s also a downside to the crowded field. Because only a plurality is needed for victory, it’s likely that candidates will win crucial Democratic primaries — tantamount to election to office in this predominantly Democratic county — despite being opposed by most voters.
That’s why Montgomery County and other localities should consider a reform that empowers the majority by allowing voters to rank their choices. Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, has been used successfully in other countries as well as a growing number of U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Santa Fe, N.M., and Minneapolis. Maine this week became the first state in the modern era to use the system in its state and federal primary elections, and voters there reaffirmed their support for ranked-choice voting by passing a ballot question that endorsed the system.
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to select candidates in order of preference and requires candidates to get a majority, not a plurality, to win. Candidates finishing last are eliminated by rounds and votes redistributed until a winner emerges with a majority of the vote. Among the benefits cited by communities that have gone to ranked-choice voting: more positive campaigning by candidates who recognize the need to earn second- and third-choice backing of voters who support their rivals; a more engaged and informed electorate; and voters freed from having to weigh their preference against their calculation of who has a chance to win.
Limitations of election equipment and concerns about voter confusion have discouraged some communities from moving to ranked-choice voting. But that seems to be changing as election technology improves and communities that switched to the system report good results.
Legislation that would have allowed Montgomery County to implement ranked-choice voting for certain local offices was introduced in the most recent General Assembly but didn’t advance. Supporters are optimistic about prospects for next year, particularly if the June 26 primary produces outcomes in which there is a winner but not a mandate from the majority. As with any electoral reform, ranked-choice voting is likely to have unforeseen consequences, and the experience of communities that try it needs to continue to be watched carefully. But it is very likely preferable to the alternative of a county executive elected by a fairly narrow plurality.