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Ranked-Choice Voting Debate Intensifies in D.C.

Last fall, at-large Council member Christina Henderson (I) clinched electoral victory in a crowded field of two dozen candidates.

Not long after entering office, she engaged council colleagues and constituents about how to ensure that candidates, regardless of party or degree of political backing, could compete on an equal playing field.

These efforts have culminated in Henderson’s introduction of legislation to implement ranked-choice voting in the District.

If The Voter Ownership, Integrity, Choice and Equity (VOICE) Amendment Act passes, voters, starting in 2024, could choose up to five candidates for each office on the ballot and rank them based on their preference.

If no candidate captures more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, then the election automatically goes into a runoff.

Henderson described ranked-choice voting as the ideal means of leveling the playing field for women candidates and those representing historically oppressed constituencies and marginalized political interests. Proponents have also argued that ranked-choice voting reduces negative campaigning and the influence of campaign funding while increasing voter turnout.

“Ranked-choice voting, not only for the at-large and ward races, would elevate the level of competition because it allows third-party and independent candidates to participate and be successful in the system,” Henderson said.

In 2015, Henderson’s predecessor and former boss at-large Council member David Grosso (I) unsuccessfully attempted to pass similar legislation. The Rank the Vote coalition that has coalesced around the VOICE Act in recent months includes 15 organizations and 300 organizers, many of whom have engaged their elected officials about ranked choice voting.

Council Chairperson Phil Mendeslon (D) has reportedly spoken about the need for a comprehensive study about the voting system. However, Council members Charles Allen (D- Ward 6), Brianne K. Nadeau (D- Ward 1), Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), and Elissa Silveman (I-at-large) have cosponsored the VOICE Amendment Act.

“I wanted to make sure we had a viable path of being potentially successful getting the legislation passed,” Henderson said. “We had people in the coalition reaching out to council offices for months. Now, New York City presents new data points for us to continue the conversation.”

A Polarizing Debate 

At this juncture, Henderson has her sights set on the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, through which the VOICE Amendment Act has to go for discussion.

If it passes, the VOICE Amendment Act would also launch a voter education campaign, led by the D.C. Board of Elections that targets seniors and voter precincts with low turnout.

In addition to New York City, Minneapolis, San Francisco and nearly two dozen other jurisdictions have taken on the ranked-choice voting system.

Henderson’s office anticipates the number of cities implementing ranked-choice voting increasing to more than 50 by the end of 2022. Officials in neighboring Arlington County held a mock election this week to test ranked-choice voting and gain voter feedback about ballot layout, voting instructions, and other aspects of the process.

Despite its appeal throughout the years, ranked-choice voting has found critics. Some have described the process as confusing to voters and unfair to those who like only one candidate. Others argue that ranked-choice voting intensifies voter disenfranchisement and further marginalizes independent candidates.

For D.C. resident and political consultant Derrell Simpson, ranked-choice voting follows in the footsteps of post-Reconstruction Era voting laws that diluted Black voting power. He predicts a similar situation unfolding in the District, a jurisdiction where residents have had their own government for less than 60 years.

“Ranked-choice voting will further exacerbate the loss of Chocolate City that we’ve seen so far, especially [when] looking at our political structure,” Simpson said. “I think it will bring about our first white mayor. The entire idea of ranked-choice voting in D.C. will be complicated, which by definition is voter suppression. It all stems from a discriminatory background.”

Ward 5 resident Patrice Lancaster called ranked-choice voting a tool of white progressives that have been encroaching on District communities. Lancaster stressed candidates should use a crowded field as an opportunity to showcase their leadership skills and differentiate themselves from their opponents.

“The onus is on the candidate to develop relationships to win and if they can’t do that then maybe they shouldn’t be leading,” Lancaster said.

In recent months, Lancaster, in conjunction with other organizers, has coordinated what’s soon to be a full-fledged social media campaign to register hundreds of new voters.

“I wasn’t pleased with the outcome of the at-large council race but the person with the majority [of the votes won,” she said. “Candidates should meet behind doors and build alliances and compromise on things that show good leadership. Ranked-choice voting will disenfranchise Black people in the end.”

Former Candidates Unite Around a Cause 

Despite skepticism about ranked-choice voting, advocates have continued to attend community events, engage elected officials and disseminate information and campaign videos on social media platforms.

On July 28, former at-large council candidates Markus Batchelor, Jeanne Lewis and Jacqueline Castaneda counted among those who joined Henderson at an online gathering about the VOICE Amendment Act. In their comments, each person reflected on their experiences as political candidates and what they believed to be the benefits of a new voting system.

For Lewis, who clinched less than 2 percent of the vote last year, ranked-choice voting stands as a means of leveling the playing field for candidates who lack institutional backing.

“Ranked choice voting would’ve allowed voters to express who they want and shown a more accurate picture,” Lewis said. “This leads to better laws and representation. It makes more candidates viable in the eyes of the voters and media. It allows candidates to vote for as many candidates as they believe would be good. This is something we desperately need.”

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2 Comments

  1. Approval voting would serve us better in leveling the playing field, and without any potential complexity. Approval voting allows voters to vote for all candidates they approve of, most voted candidate wins. No vote splitting, no delays in counting, no (semi-)complex counting process.

    There is little doubt that Ranked Choice/Instant Runoff voting is better than the current “choose-one-plurality” system. But why stop there, when there are much better and simpler methods available?

    1. Approval voting would be an improvement, but it would still force voters to vote strategically. Campaigns would say “vote for me and only me,” because voting for an additional candidate dilutes your vote and makes your preferred candidate less likely to win. With ranked-choice instant-runoff voting, you don’t hurt your favorite by choosing a second choice, and you don’t hurt your second choice by choosing a third. It’s perfectly simple and intuitive for the voter. There is software to handle the complicated part, tallying the votes. It doesn’t need to cause any delays. (The delays in New York City were not due to RCV.)

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