This year’s D.C. Council elections show why the city should adopt ranked-choice voting
WITH 23 CANDIDATES vying for two at-large seats on the D.C. Council, it was inevitable that the winners would fail to secure a majority of the vote. Indeed, they didn’t even come close. At-large incumbent Robert White (D) got 26 percent of the vote while Christina D. Henderson (I) won with just 15 percent of the vote. That far more people voted against the two candidates than for them underscores the need for the District to follow the lead of other cities in adopting ranked-choice voting.
This year’s at-large races were unusually crowded, the result of an open seat created by the decision of council member David Grosso (I) not to seek reelection, a new public financing program that made it easier to mount campaigns and lowered signature requirements to get on the ballot because of the pandemic. It’s good that voters had a variety of qualified candidates to choose from, but the crowded field also presented challenges. “Do I vote for the person I think is best but I am worried won’t win?” was a common refrain from voters.
Ranked-choice voting offers a solution to that dilemma. With that system, voters rank candidates in an order of preference that then triggers an immediate runoff if no one candidate emerges with at least 50 percent of the vote in the first round. “A great fit for any election with more than two choices” was the description of Rob Richie, president of FairVote, a Maryland-based nonprofit that advocates for electoral reforms. In addition to ensuring majority support for those elected to public office, ranked-choice voting has other advantages, including discouraging negative campaigning. Candidates are campaigning not just to be the first choice of a voter but also the second or third choice, a distinction that might have given pause to those candidates and their supporters slinging mud in the D.C. council races.
Ranked-choice voting, already in use in 19 localities, was itself on the ballot in last week’s elections. While it failed to win statewide approval in Massachusetts and the results in Alaska are still unclear, voters in five cities passed measures adopting the system. More important, ranked-choice voting also seemed to go flawlessly in its uses last week in Maine, a county in Oregon and seven cities. This year, five state Democratic parties used ranked-choice voting in presidential primary elections and caucuses. Concerns of critics — that voters would be confused or the system too unwieldy to produce timely results — have not materialized.
Legislation to institute the reform in the District has been introduced but failed to get a hearing. Ms. Henderson — a former aide to Mr. Grosso, who had sponsored ranked-choice voting bills — said the reform will likely be the first bill she introduces. “The system isn’t working,” she said last week on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show.” “If we are going to continue to move forward with [public financing] to truly diversify the number of candidates . . . we need a different way of how we elect our folks.”
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