| C. Suarez Rojas Richmond Times-Dispatch | Roanoke Times |
RICHMOND — Voters in Richmond could become the first in Virginia to pick their local elected officials by ranked-choice voting when all nine City Council seats are up for reelection in 2024 .
The city is considering the move after the General Assembly in 2020 passed a law enabling municipalities to use the voting method for their local races. The bill, which includes a 2031 sunset clause, is meant to test the ranked-choice system so that lawmakers and election officials can evaluate whether to adopt it for statewide elections.
It lets you vote for who you really like no matter how many people run.
Second District Councilwoman Katherine Jordan, the ordinance’s chief sponsor, said she introduced the legislation because various voter advocacy groups, such as the League of Women Voters and the Richmond Crusade for Voters, have expressed interest in the city adopting ranked-choice voting.
“I don’t see a reason to wait. I think the upsides of ranked choice voting have been well documented,” she said. “I would like to see us continue empowering voters and candidates in our elections.”
The proposed Richmond ordinance would only apply to the city council races. The mayor and all school board members, who are also up for reelection in 2024, would still be elected through the city’s typical election process. School Board candidates win with a simple majority of votes, but the mayor must carry at least five of the city’s nine districts to win.
Ranked-choice voting has long been a fringe idea among politicos, but it has started to gain traction with state lawmakers across the country.
New York City voters last year elected their mayor in a ranked-choice election last year. Statewide elections in Maine also use the system. And the Republican Party of Virginia last year used ranked-choice voting to nominate its candidate for the governor’s race.
Virginia Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, said she introduced the state bill to enable local elections by ranked-choice voting after seeing more people step up to run for local and state offices. She said that’s a positive development, but that voters have few options when there are more than two candidates running in a race.
“We all know what it feels like to be torn between the candidate we like most and the candidate we think can win,” Hudson said. “Ranked choice voting solves that problem. It lets you vote for who you really like no matter how many people run.”
Hudson last year founded the nonprofit Ranked Choice Virginia to help advocate for local legislation and support officials interested in adopting the voting process. She said Richmond is the first Virginia locality to introduce legislation, but noted that Arlington County recently ran a mock election in August to test equipment and gather feedback.
In her home district, Charlottesville and Albemarle County officials have also expressed interest in adopting ranked choice voting for their elections. Hudson said she hopes that localities test ranked choice voting to help build momentum behind acceptance of it for statewide elections.
“Local pilots are a great way to build support for broader adoption. That way the communities that are most excited to embrace it can go first,” she said. “We can tell people that voters use and love ranked-choice in Maine and Minnesota and New Mexico, but there’s nothing like seeing it happen right here in Virginia to help bring more people on board.”
Even in localities where officials are interested in adopting the system, there could be some resistance from entrenched politicians or election officials who aren’t sure if they have the resources to shift to a new voting method anytime soon.
Officials in Fredericksburg are currently evaluating a move to ranked choice voting, but Rene Rodriguez, chairman of the city’s electoral board, earlier this year said he doubts that the city can make the transition before local elections there in November 2023, according to a Free-Lance Star news report.
Rodriguez, a former candidate for the Fredericksburg City Council, said his experience helping administer the Republican nominating convention last year informs his opinion, noting that it leaves room for human error and other problems when votes are counted.
“We’ll do whatever we need to do to support the city [of Fredericksburg] in whatever they decide. But I currently do not see the merits in ranked choice voting and its applicability and potential for incidents,” he said in an interview with the Times-Dispatch on Wednesday. “I think those far outweigh the perceived benefits.”
Richmond General Registrar Keith Balmer, the city’s chief election official, said his office would be prepared to implement the change and personally thinks ranked-choice voting is a good idea. “We have two years before implementation. We’re already doing research on it,” he said. “The biggest thing is making sure there’s a strong public outreach” to educate voters on how it works.
Even if some officials are eager about ranked choice voting, there’s still a question of whether voters will come to embrace it, said Richard Meagher, a Randolph-Macon College politics professor and local political analyst. “It’s highly recommended by electoral reform folks because it produces broader consensus candidates, candidates with a broader sense of support, but I still don’t quite know how that overlaps with the kind of racial history that’s so important to Richmond electoral politics,” he said.
Richmond voters have selected council candidates by district since the mid-1970s after a federal lawsuit led to the suspension of local elections for seven years after the annexed part of Chesterfield County. The case landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the annexation was racially motivated. Officials adopted the district system to replace at-large representation as a way to assure adequate representation for minority constituencies.
As the demographics of the city have shifted over the past decade, with the Black population declining below 50% for the first time in half a century, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, ranked choice voting could result in Black residents losing political power, Meagher said.
Ranked-choice voting could prevent extreme far-right or far-left candidates from winning elections with just a plurality, he said, but that could create tension among constituencies.
“What if instead of [Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield] you had a minority candidate with a really strong core support among black voters in the city,” Meagher said. “If they’re defeated by a ranked-choice system that ends up with a more moderate, white candidate, that sort of good governance program would seem to overwhelm a racial minority in a way that might be detrimental to them.”
Julian Hayter, a University of Richmond professor historian area of expertise includes local African American politics and the Civil Rights Movement, said those uncertainties could be further exacerbated after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 determined that part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional.
The ruling stripped requirements that certain localities obtain federal authorization for changes to election laws and procedures. The purpose of the law was to prevent changes that could negatively impact racial or ethnic minority groups.
“In a city that’s changing demographically, particularly racially, it’s possible that a consensus candidate can win without getting a majority of Black voters,” Hayter said. “They might not take that constituency’s preferences into account in their policy making.”
Hayter did not say he’s opposed to ranked choice voting, but said that it, like other electoral systems, could have pitfalls. “There’s no silver bullet,” he said.
A public hearing on Richmond’s ranked-choice voting ordinance has not yet been scheduled, but the council’s Governmental Operations Standing Committee is slated to review it. The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for May 4.