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Editorial: Virginia Republicans embrace ranked-choice voting (at least for now)

Editorial: Virginia Republicans embrace ranked-choice voting (at least for now)

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If you think Republicans are hidebound, backward-looking and resistant to change, we are here today to tell you that you’re wrong.

The evidence? Virginia Republicans will be using ranked-choice voting to nominate their candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

For all the kerfuffle over how the Republican Party of Virginia will hold its convention during a pandemic (remember the proposal for a drive-in convention at Liberty University?) and the ongoing controversy about one of their candidates (ahem, Amanda Chase), there hasn’t been enough attention paid to this particular detail: The RPV will be using RCV.

This is kind of a big deal. It’s also very out of character because Republicans in other states have often opposed ranked-choice voting — but this will now be the second time Virginia Republicans have used that method. They used it last year to pick their party chairman, although picking an internal party officer through ranked-choice voting is hardly the same as nominating a statewide slate of candidates.

So what, exactly, is ranked-choice voting? The short version is that voters get to indicate a second choice. Or a third choice. Or sometimes more, depending on how many candidates there are. If your first choice doesn’t make it, then your second choice vote gets counted. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to show how it worked in last year’s election for Republican Party chair. The party had three candidates — Richard Anderson, Michael Schoelwer and Jack Wilson.

The initial vote count showed no candidate with a majority — Anderson had 48.8%, Schoelwer 32.25% and Wilson 18.95%. Under the rules, the last-place candidate was eliminated and his supporters’ second-choice votes were then counted. Most of Wilson’s supporters listed Anderson as their second choice, so the final results were Anderson 62.28% and Schoelwer 37.72%.

That’s ranked-choice voting.

It’s meant to accomplish several things at the same time. It’s a way to make sure the winner has a majority without going through a separate run-off election. It’s also way for voters to vote for their first choice — and still not “waste” their vote on some someone who can’t win because those second-choice voters might come into play.

If you want to call this a foreign concept, you’re technically right. It was conceived in the 1850s by Carl Andrae, a Danish politician and mathematician, and an early version of the system was used in some elections in Denmark starting in 1855. Starting in 1912, four American states — Florida, Indiana, Maryland and Minnesota — adopted the system, as well. Then it died out.

Ranked-choice voting resurfaced in the United States in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1941 but didn’t spread beyond the state. Over the past two decades, though, it has — however slowly and fitfully. While ranked-choice voting is often seen as a liberal innovation, that hasn’t always been the case. Utah Republicans used it as early as 2002, including a 2004 nomination for governor. Eight candidates were in the first round, led by Jon Huntsman at 27.98% followed by Nolan Karras at 17.71%. Under Utah’s rules, only the top two candidates moved on. When the second-choice votes were allocated, Huntsman won the nomination 51.28% to 48.72%. Utah Republicans have used ranked-choice voting in subsequent conventions. Virginia Republicans will apparently be just the second state party to nominate a gubernatorial candidate through ranked-choice voting (although the Virginia rules will be somewhat different).

Since then ranked-choice voting has popped up in local elections in both liberal and conservative localities, from San Francisco on the left to Utah (again) on the right. Four states (Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming) used it in last year’s Democratic presidential primaries. Last November, Maine became the first state to use ranked-choice voting in a presidential election. Republicans sued to stop the method but lost in court. In the end, ranked-choice voting never came into play — Joe Biden won a majority statewide and in one of Maine’s two congressional districts; Donald Trump won a majority in the other. (Maine, unlike most states, allocates two electoral votes statewide and the other two based on congressional districts).

Now, ranked-choice voting is coming to Virginia — and not just with the Republican convention. Last year the General Assembly passed — on largely party-line votes — a bill sponsored by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, that creates a 10-year window for localities to experiment with ranked-choice voting in elections for city council and board of supervisors. That window opens July 1; how many localities will try that?

Politics is often full of irony: The party that largely opposed Hudson’s ranked-choice voting bill now has embraced it, at least for this year’s purposes. And it’s changing the dynamics of the Republican campaign.

Here’s how it will work: The party has five candidates for governor — Chase, Kirk Cox, Sergio de la Pena, Pete Snyder and Glenn Youngkin. That means convention delegates will get five choices — first, second, third, fourth, fifth. After each round, if no one has won a majority, the last-place candidate will be dropped and their second-choice votes allocated. That means candidates have several considerations: First, they want to win enough first-place votes that they’re not eliminated. But second, they need to make nice to the lower-ranked candidates because they want their supporters when those candidates get dropped. It doesn’t really help a candidate if all their second-choice votes are locked up by another candidate who is still in the race.

If a simple plurality were required, one candidate might be tempted to blaze a scorched-earth campaign through the pack. But in a ranked-choice election, successful candidates will be more tempered because they want to be everyone’s second choice and ultimately have to get a majority. Will that produce a more marketable nominee for the fall election? We’ll see — but it means the odds of Republicans nominating the controversial fireband Chase are quite low. In a state-run primary with a multi-candidate field, she might well be able to win a plurality. In a convention, with ranked-choice voting, her chances seem dim. How many people are going to list her as their second choice? Probably not many, which is why a lot of the Republicans who normally push for primaries were advocating for a convention — a convention with ranked-choice voting.

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