| Taft Coghill Jr. ∙ Culpeper Star-Exponent |
The Fredericksburg City Council has directed city staff to research a different form of voting that could take effect in 2023 local elections.
Councilman Jason Graham proposed that Fredericksburg explore a ranked-choice voting system that has been implemented in some states and cities in the U.S.
”I think we all know that our democracy, it needs some shaking up. It needs some rejuvenation.
“It’s a way to vote that’s a little different, but not too different from how we vote today,” Graham said.
A ranked-choice voting system ranks candidates by preference. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, they’re declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated.
First-preference votes for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is then conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority with the adjusted votes added.
The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority.
Rene Rodriguez, chairman of the city’s Electoral Board, reminded City Council members that the board sent a letter in December 2020 informing them that ranked-choice voting isn’t feasible in Fredericksburg.
“When this issue first came up, we actually provided input and information as to how it would not be implementable in the city of Fredericksburg [because of] the current equipment and a couple of other things,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez noted that Republicans used ranked-choice voting for their primaries last year and ballots were counted by hand.
“I was asked to help administer that election and I saw that and I can provide input later on if you’d like,” Rodriguez told City Council. “But it was not an easy process and I would tell you that we do not have in the city of Fredericksburg the capacity, the capability to do that currently.”
Graham said that’s why he’s giving nearly two years of notice for the potential change. He said he supports ranked-choice voting because it would lessen circumstances when voters believe they’re only selecting “the lesser of two evils.”
“You can imagine if there are five people on a ballot, there could be a situation where someone wins but they’re simply disliked by a majority of voters,” Graham said. “But they just got the most votes because there were so many people on that ballot.”
Graham added that ranked-choice voting would lead to “strategic voting,” where voters think about not just who they prefer but whether other people support their choice in order to make the tally “truly matter.”
Graham posted a video to his Facebook page that explains ranked-choice voting to viewers.
“The process is not anything brand new,” Graham said. “It’s been successfully implemented in cities and states across America and it has made demonstrable improvement. It can make campaigns more civil because candidates are forced to appeal to as many voters as possible instead of just trying to turn out their core group of supporters.”
Graham said that voters appear to be fed up with “every single aspect of politics, whether it’s elections or governing itself.” He said ranked-choice voting could help address those concerns.
He noted that while City Council members can’t impact state and federal elections, they do have the ability to change local races.
Virginia code allows local governing bodies to create ordinances to determine how elections are handled. Former Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill in 2020 allowing ranked-choice voting if local governments choose to do so. Further guidance on implementing it is expected to come from the General Assembly this year.
“If it’s moving around in the state, it’s worth a discussion at least,” Vice Mayor Chuck Frye Jr. said.
City Council proposed that staff consult with the registrar and the board of elections and return with more information this summer. Councilman Matt Kelly suggested that staff not create an ordinance right away, but instead returns with pros and cons as well as Electoral Board recommendations.
“I think we all know that our democracy, it needs some shaking up. It needs some rejuvenation,” Graham said. “I think ranked-choice voting is a way for Fredericksburg to be a leader in that charge, not just for Virginia but across the rest of America.”