Home Local Politics Arlington Democrats Should Move to Majority Rules, Instant Runoff Voting

Arlington Democrats Should Move to Majority Rules, Instant Runoff Voting


In just over 3 weeks, Arlington Democrats will hold a caucus — see the “flip” for all the details from ACDC chair Mike Lieberman — to determine the Democratic nominee for Arlington County Board (to fill Senator-elect Barbara Favola’s soon-to-be-vacant seat). Expected turnout for the caucus is around 4,000 voters, depending on weather, etc. Given that the current population of Arlington is 200,000, that turnout will represent approximately 2% of Arlingtonians.

That’s bad enough, considering that whoever wins this caucus is highly likely to be the next Arlington County Board Member For Life (I say this because, in heavily Democratic Arlington, there’s essentially zero chance of a Republican beating the Democrat, and also because once people are elected to the Board, they are basically there forever, barring political appointment, retirement, or untimely demise).

But it’s actually even worse than that, as the winner of this caucus only needs to achieve a plurality of the voters participating. Given that there are six candidates running, this means that the caucus winner will probably get somewhere in the 20%-30% range of those 4,000 votes, or perhaps 800-1,200 votes. In other words, it is highly likely that the next Arlington County Board Member For Life will be selected by just 0.4%-0.6% of Arlingtonians. To put it another way, more than 99% of Arlingtonians will NOT participate in selecting the next County Board Member For Life.

Now, before I get to my proposal for “majority rules” and instant runoff voting (IRV), let me just be clear: the fact that such a tiny percentage of Arlingtonians will likely select the next County Board Member For Life is above all the choice of the 99%+ of Arlingtonians who don’t get off their…uh, keisters…and vote. Same thing with any other election, by the way. Of course, these same people will probably complain about how things are going in Arlington, but do they even do the bare minimum in a Democracy, which is to exercise their right to vote? Nope.

Sadly, pathetically low turnout does not just take place in County Board Democratic caucuses, but in important statewide primaries as well. In the 2005 primaries, for instance, turnout was only 2.6% for a tightly contested Democratic primary for Lieutenant Governor (between Chap Petersen, Viola Baskerville, Phil Puckett, and Leslie Byrne). In that same election, there was only 3.9% turnout for an important Republican primary for LG between  Bill Bolling and Sean Connaughton. Oh, and the 2006 Webb-Miller primary? Try turnout of 3.5%. Horrible.

In sum, people just don’t turn out for non-general elections in Virginia, with the possible exception of particularly exciting presidential primaries, like the Democratic one in 2008. Other than that, though, people simply don’t care enough to get off their…uh, keisters…and vote!

Sadly, this appears to be the state of affairs, probably for the foreseeable future. It sucks, but that’s the way it is, and I’m not arguing that we can change the world here. Instead, what I AM arguing is that we should at least require the winner of the Democratic caucus for Arlington County Board to achieve a majority (50%+) of the vote, and that the most efficient way to go about this in a 6-person field is through use of an IRV system.

Voters rank candidates in order of preference, and their ballots are counted as one vote for their first choice candidate. If a candidate secures a majority of votes cast, that candidate wins. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. A new round of counting takes place, with each ballot counted as one vote for the advancing candidate who is ranked highest on that ballot. This process continues until the winning candidate receives a majority of the vote against the remaining candidates.

This is not an original idea, as IRV’s been used successfully in Charlottesville (with “seven candidates for three City Council spots”). And, according to the former chair of the C-ville Democratic Party, “I wasn’t really a fan at first, but I am now.” Why? Because it worked well (“people only needed to spend 15 minutes to vote…over 2,500 people participated“).

Now, it may very well be too late to institute the majority requirement plus IRV for the January 19/21 Arlington County Board Democratic caucus. I’m open to that argument, although certainly not convinced. However, regardless of what’s decided for this caucus, that’s no reason for Arlington Democrats not to move towards an IRV/majority system for future caucuses (for School Board, County Board, etc.). At least then, whatever the turnout happens to be – and I strongly encourage everyone to get off their…uh, keisters…and vote – we can be assured that the winner will have achieved a majority, not just a plurality of 20%, 25%, whatever. Is there any good reason not to do this? I’m all ears.

P.S. Two-term ACDC Chair Peter Rousselot tells me he thinks that IRV is a good idea that should be discussed now. Furthermore, Peter believes that such a system should be put into place as soon as possible, “assuming the logistical and voting security issues can be worked out.” Needless to say, I agree with Peter.

ACDC Elected Officials, Steering Committee, and County Board Candidates,

Since learning that we would have to change our caucus date late Wednesday, our Caucus Director Terry Serie has been working hard to evaluate potential caucus locations across Arlington for our proposed new caucus dates of January 19 and January 21.  I wanted to let you know that after completing this evaluation, Terry and I will be recommending to the steering committee that the caucus location be held Thursday, January 19, 2012 from 7:00pm to 9:00pm at Washington-Lee High School and Saturday, January 21, 2012 from 11:00am to 7:00pm at Kenmore Middle School.  It is important to emphasize that these recommendations are subject to steering committee approval and possible amendment at our December 28, 2011 meeting, but for planning purposes and for any  communications you have between now and then, I wanted to let you know that this will be my and Terry’s recommendation.

In addition, in light of the compressed campaign schedule, I wanted to let you know that ACDC is planning to host a candidate forum for announced County Board candidates as part of our January 4, 2012 ACDC meeting, which will be held at the NRECA building in Ballston (4301 Wilson Blvd.) at our usual time (7:00pm).  We will be circulating rules for this candidate forum to candidates upon approval of such rules by our steering committee on December 28.

As I mentioned on Wednesday, the court’s and Electoral Board’s decisions on the filing deadlines and special election dates for County Board, which prompted our need to change our own caucus dates, were unexpected.  We very much appreciate your continued understanding and flexibility as we strive to make the best of this situation.  If you have any questions or concerns, I remain available to discuss them at xxx-xxx-xxxx.

Thanks, and happy holidays to all.


  • Dave

    is that in a very-low-turnout primary like this, the candidates tend to bring out “exclusive constituencies.” That is, those people show up to vote for them, and nobody else. So given the option to choose a second place, they will, rather, just stay home.

    Also, on a practical note, while I don’t remember the exact #’s, in ’08 – the last time there was a large-field primary – both winning candidates received about 25% of the vote in a vote-for-two situation, which is pretty much a majority.

    So while I certainly agree with IRV in principle, I don’t think it would make much practical difference. It might also have the side-effect of creating “beholden” candidate coalitions where a strong candidate ends up making deals with “also-rans” so that they can have influence weilding their second-place votes. That might encourage more people to run in the end.

    Again, IRV is positive and a good thing – works very well in Australia for national elections. But I’m not sure it helps toward your actual goal of increasing voter turnout in small, local elections.

  • jlsnook

    I was chair of the Charlottesville Democratic Party in 2002, when we had 6 candidates for two City Council nominations.  The assembled caucus lasted 4.5 hours, with four separate ballots.  With speeches and all of the folderol to start, the first ballots weren’t cast until about 1.5 hours into the process, and of course we had the rules that most assembled caucuses do, where you had to be registered by the beginning of the meeting, and latecomers were not permitted to vote.  We had about 550 participants.  By the time of the 4th ballot, we were down to about 300 voters.  No one was happy.  Perhaps coincidentally but perhaps not, that is the only election in the last 25 years when a Republican won a seat on the Charlottesville City Council.

    In 2009, we anticipated a hot contest, and we were fresh off the Obama victory and democratic/Democratic fervor was flowing.  

    We had a couple of priorities.  

    First, we wanted any nominee to have been the recipient of a favorable vote from at least 50% of the voters, as would happen in an assembled caucus/convention.  We had a couple of extremely contentious issues that brought out impassioned factions, and each faction was afraid that the other would be able to nominate a candidate with less than 50% support.

    Second, we did not want a marathon session, requiring people to give up an entire day just to participate.

    Third, we wanted to maximize participation, both as an affirmative virtue in itself, and as a way to build the Party.  

    So we used an unassembled caucus with Instant Runoff Voting.  Voters had to rank the candidates.  We did it at a centrally-located school on a Saturday.  The polls were open from 9 AM to 6 PM.   Over 1700 people cast votes.  It was a great atmosphere for politics.  We had three candidates for two City Council spots (all of our seats are at-large) and three candidates for City Sheriff.  The Sheriff’s nomination was decided by use of the Instant Runoff System, because no one got 50% on the first counting.

    In 2011, we had 7 candidates for 3 nominations for City Council (our seats are all at-large) and 3 candidates for City Circuit Court Clerk.  Again, we held it on a Saturday, and the polls were open all day.  This time, over 2,500 people voted.  The first two Council spots were decided on the first counting, as was the Clerk’s race, but the third Council spot was the product of the IRV system.  It took many hours of manual counting and re-counting to determine the third nominee.  

    On the good side, we dramatically increased participation.

    On the bad side, the cost of getting the Democratic nomination increased dramatically as well.  Now candidates were having to persuade potentially thousands, rather than hundreds, of Democrats to come to the polls to vote for them.  

    The counter-argument to that is that once you got the Democratic nomination, you had already had thousands of voter contacts, and you were already a good way along to a general election win.  You already had an organization, you already had yard signs and a message and campaign materials.

    On balance, it has been a good switch.

    If you want to keep the requirement of 50% support, IRV voting makes the process workable.

  • amber waves

    IRV is a no-brainer for the caucus. It has so few downsides…and so many upsides.  One upside includes less fratricidal attacks.  Candidates seeking the 2nd and 3rd votes from supporters of competing candidates, are much less inclined to savage the character of their opponents.  This encourages a more positive election environment and provides more unity at the conclusion. IRV also alleviates our “Lesser-of-Two-Evils” voting strategies that the “first-past-the-post” system manifests. (i.e.-nadar voters 1st choice voters would have have had their 2nd choice votes go to Gore in 2000)

    A better idea still is to move to IRV/Ranked Voting/Choice Voting for Arlington General Elections. This way we could eliminate the need for caucuses entirely (saving money) and vastly increase citizen participation in our elections. Ranked Voting provides the added advantage for Arlington County to implement proportional representation for elections when we have more than 1 open seat for County Board or for School Board. This might help get a republican elected…but it also might elect more representative ideological diversity among Democratic candidates.

    Fairvote.org based in Takoma Park provides marvelous resources for understanding and implementing IRV and proportional representation systems.  If Dem’s want to quickly implement IRV in the Caucus, experts with practical expertise for implementation would be nearby and would certainly be helpful.