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Bring Ranked Choice Voting to Washington, D.C. (Ranked Choice Voting Part Two)

By: Miriam Edelman

Do you want to elect more females and people from diverse racial and ethnic groups to office? Would you like to end people winning elections in D.C. with small percentages, relatively little support, and no mandate? Do you want to decrease limit negative political campaigning? Then, support bringing the innovative ranked choice voting (RCV) system to our nation’s capital.

 

This piece follows up on the “Overview of Ranked Choice Voting (Ranked Choice Voting Part One)” blog piece of DCNOW. RCV can be used in D.C. later this decade.

 

The election of new D.C. Councilmembers with small percentages of the vote is not unheard of. This result sometimes happens in an open-seat election when the incumbent does not run for reelection. Examples include:

-          In November 2020, with just 14.77 percent of the vote, Christina Henderson defeated a crowded field to replace retiring then-At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Grosso.

-          In April 2015, with just 26.87 percent of the vote, LeRuby May defeated many candidates in a special election to represent Ward eight.

 

In recent years, there have been efforts to bring RCV to D.C. For example, in 2021, D.C. Councilmember Henderson introduced B24-0372 - Voter Ownership, Integrity, Choice, and Equity (VOICE) Amendment Act of 2021 with six other D.C. Councilmembers. Hence, a majority of the D.C. Councilmembers supported that bill. Of those seven, five still serve as D.C. Councilmembers. The 2021 bill would have instituted RCV in the nation’s capital and created a “public education campaign” about the new RCV system. Similar bills of prior council sessions had the support of four or fewer Councilmembers and never were the subject of a hearing.

 

On November 18, 2021, the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety held an eight-hour long hearing on the legislation. At that hearing, Henderson said, “When every voter is confident that their voice is heard or has been heard, that is a win for democracy and the health of the community” and “Most of our elections are won by similarly slim majorities, and I would argue that it’s sometimes discouraging both from voter and candidate perspectives. A ranked-choice voting system would change that.” She discussed winning her D.C. Council seat. Supporters mentioned at least some of RCV’s benefits.

 

Critics made several points against RCV. They pointed out that since some voters would not complete all their rankings, RCV might not show majority support. Other opponents said that RCV is confusing and/or would make voting harder for multiple groups, including people who do not rely on English. Co-Chair of the Seniors/Elders Committee of the Ward 5 Democrats Robert King stated, “Ranked-choice voting turns checkers into chess and would upend our democracy in favor of a system few understand and none can explain.” President of the D.C. Democratic State Committee Charles Wilson expressed his party’s concern that B24-0372 would change voter turnout in wards with low voter turnout. He discussed Wards seven and eight voters not voting for two at-large candidates even though they can. Opponents also did not like comparing D.C. to other jurisdictions, although the D.C. Council has been interested in what similar cities have done about other issue areas. Critics questioned changing a system that might not be broken. As Vice Chair of the DC Democratic Party Linda Gray said, “The real question is: Are our elections effective, efficient and fair? The answer to that question is yes. Therefore DC does not need a change in how we vote.”

 

At least some of the criticisms were addressed. Then-Executive Director of Long Live GoGo Kelsye Adams said, “Some who are speaking against the VOICE Act are spreading misleading information, stating that Black people don’t understand how to rank their choices or how ranked-choice voting will work. This is unbelievable and very insulting to our community.”

 

Ward eight resident Philip Pannell testified in support of B24-0372. He discussed ward eight in his testimony, commenting on winners with relatively small percentages of the vote being defeated in the next election. As he said,

In 2015 there was a special Ward 8 Council election to fill the vacancy left by Marion Barry's death. There were 13 candidates, 14 percent of the voter turned out and the winner received 27% of the votes cast. That incumbent councilmember was defeated for reelection the next year by the second-place finisher in the 2015 special election.

Pannell discussed the problem of the lack of mandates that happen under the current system, remarking:

When candidates win with slim margins and without a majority of the votes, they have no mandates, the community does not unify behind them and the opposition to their reelections begin the day they are sworn in. Some community activists and leaders are not even interested in working with them or hoping that they do a good job for the people. They simply must be defeated because they won narrow victories.


Although B24-0372 did not become law, RCV efforts have continued in Washington, D.C.  The failed legislative effort caused momentum to the current way of bringing RCV to D.C., a ballot initiative (Initiative 83).

 

The D.C. Democratic Party continued to oppose RCV. In a May 2023 statement, it said, “We acknowledge that RCV may be a suitable option for certain jurisdictions, however, when considering the District’s specific circumstances, we have identified significant concerns that prevent us from endorsing this approach.” The statement said “[The] fundamental issue we identified is that District wards are not equal in terms of voter turnout. Implementing RCV would not adequately address this disparity and could potentially undermine the democratic principles we strive to uphold” and “Our priority is to ensure that every vote is counted and that the voice of each voter is accurately represented, without introducing additional complexities that could hinder voter engagement and participation”

 

According to a May 2023 poll by Lake Research Partners, there was overwhelming support of RCV in D.C. According to poll results, 62 percent of 600 likely voters supported RCV.

 

On June 16, 2023, advocacy group Make All Votes Count DC submitted the Make All Votes Count Act of 2024 ballot initiative, which would mandate D.C. hold open primary elections and bring RCV to D.C., to the D.C. Board of Elections (DCBOE). Ward seven Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Lisa D. T. Rice and ward eight Pannell lead the effort. Rice dispelled criticism of RCV, writing

Quite frankly, this criticism that RCV is too complicated for Black voters and seniors is insulting and is a fear tactic. Ranking is not complicated. People get it when you don’t intentionally confuse them. We rank our decisions every day. It’s as simple as choosing your favorite sandwich (or ice cream) at a deli.

In July 2023, the D.C. Board of Elections met about the ballot initiative after hours of public testimony and ruled that that ballot initiative could be included on the 2024 ballot.

 

On August 1, 2023, the D.C. Democratic Party filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court (https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/23903671-2023-cab-004732?responsive=1&title=1), arguing that the initiative violates both the U.S. Constitution and D.C.’s Home Rule Charter. It also argued that RCV would confuse low-income, African-American, and senior citizen voters and voters with disabilities.

 

            On August 11, 2023, the Washington Post’s Editorial Board rebuked this case, referring to it as “decidedly undemocratic” and “meritless.” According to its opinion piece, “Ranked-choice balloting would ensure winners have broad support” and has operated well. It also showed confidence in RCV, writing

The Democratic Party’s suit contends that ranked-choice voting “could ultimately suppress the voice and influence of voters of color for decades to come,” raising concerns about voter “confusion.” We have more faith in Washington’s voters, from all communities. Parents rank their preferences in the city’s school placement lottery, and the D.C. Housing Authority uses ranked preferences for public housing assignments.

The piece closes with “A hearing on the Democratic lawsuit targeting the ballot initiative is scheduled for Nov. 3 — when it should be promptly dismissed.”

 

Filing and timing problems stymied the D.C. Democratic Party’s case. Parties had to wait until September 1st before it could sue. On August 31, 2023, the D.C. Democratic Party filed a basically identical case. On November 4, 2023, the first suit was withdrawn. DCBOE and D.C. government lawyers thought that the second case was filed too early and on October 23, 2023, asked Judge Charles Ross to dismiss the case. On November 3, 2023, D.C.’s government attorney argued that D.C. is wrong. On March 28, 2024, Judge Ross dismissed the case, ruling that the case was filed too early.

 

Congress also has been involved in this internal issue (as was described in DCNOW’s “D.C. Elections-Related Legislation Update” blog piece of September 25, 2023). On August 9, 2023, U.S. Representative Mike Lawler (R-NY) posted the following on social media,

If ranked choice is such a good idea, why is the DC Democratic Party suing to get it tossed from the ballot? I agree with DC Democrats on this. That’s why I introduced H.R.4493 which will prevent DC from moving forward with ranked choice voting.

Two Republicans signed on as co-sponsors of H.R.4493.

 

It is not clear whether Initiative 83, which could be challenged again, will appear on the ballot in November 2024. Supporters need 30,000 signatures by July 8th in order to qualify for the ballot. As of March 22, 2024, more than 10,000 signatures have been gathered. It seems that signatures are being collected at “grocery stores, metro stops, farmers markets, and festivals all spring.” If Initiative 83 appears on the November 2024 ballot and were to be approved by voters, RCV could be first used in D.C.’s elections during the June 2026 primary elections.

 

If RCV were authorized in the nation’s capital, an educational campaign must be launched to ensure that RCV runs smoothly. It would help prevent confusion among D.C. voters about how to vote. Although often #1 is the top rank in RCV, some voters might think of #1 as the lowest ranking because one is the lowest positive number. However, D.C. residents should be able to figure out how to vote, as some already rate their preferences for schools and other matters.

 

Such a campaign was held in New York City in 2021 before NYC’s new RCV elections. NYC’s initiative involved advertising, “language access and accessibility resources,” and outreach partnerships with many types of stakeholders. Multiple Councilmembers stated their strong support of educating voters on NYCs’ new RCV system. An example is Council Member Keith Powers, who said,

When New Yorkers go to the polls in June, their ballots will look different than usual. It’s imperative that we dedicate resources to ensure voters are as informed as possible on the new Ranked Choice Voting process, which will ultimately result in leadership that’s reflective of New Yorkers’ wants and save taxpayer dollars.

 

Let’s bring RCV to D.C. If you are a D.C. voter, sign a petition to get Initiative 83 on the ballot. Help collect signatures for it. If this initiative appears on the November 2024 ballot and you are D.C. voter, vote for it. You can help greatly improve our city.

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