By: Luke Foley
Ranked choice voting could be coming to DC as soon as 2024. On July 14, 2021, At-Large DC Councilmember Christina Henderson introduced the Vote Ownership, Integrity, Choice, and Equity (VOICE) Amendment Act, which proposes to implement ranked choice voting (RCV) in all district elections, including those for Mayor, City Council, U.S. President, and Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. Henderson laid out her case for RCV in a July press release:
“The benefits of RCV are just as diverse as the candidates who are empowered to run under this system. Candidates are incentivized to campaign positively to appeal to the supporters of other candidates as a backup preference… races are more dynamic and collegial with genuine policy debates supplanting negative campaign tactics.”
Henderson’s cited benefits echo a common refrain from RCV advocates, who frame it as a solution to spoiler candidates and unfair representation. Instead of only picking one candidate per race, RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If no single candidate wins an outright majority of the first round of voting, the lowest performing candidate is eliminated, and the count proceeds to an instant runoff. Advocates say that this system provides a more accurate picture of voter preference and prevents situations in which a number of candidates fracture the vote, leaving the winner with a relatively small proportion of the total vote. It is also said to reduce negative campaigning as candidates are incentivized to campaign in a way that appeals to all voters and thereby earns more second-place votes. The idea is that genuine and collegial policy debates are therefore more likely to occur, meaning that voters are able to become more informed rather than distracted by negative campaign tactics.
RCV was notably used in the most recent New York City mayoral election, which was the first citywide election to be conducted using RCV. In the democratic primary of that race, Eric Adams eventually won after eight rounds of vote tallying. However, a counting error by the New York Board of Elections delayed the results and raised questions about whether a runoff between the top-two candidates would have been better.
Henderson introduced the VOICE act with the support of six other councilmembers, and it now has backing from a majority of DC councilmembers, as well as the Washington Post. However, there exists significant hesitation and some opposition to the change. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, for example, stated that he would prefer to see a study on RCV before it was adopted in the district. Others have argued that it is too confusing and that the risk of mistakes, like in New York, outweighs the potential benefit.
To combat these concerns, Henderson’s bill would require the DC Board of Elections to roll out a voter education campaign that targets seniors and low-turnout precincts. Despite the potential growing pains exemplified by New York City’s experience, Henderson maintains that RCV is worth it, citing statistics that show that jurisdictions that have introduced RCV have seen increases in turnout and more support for first-time candidates, women, and people of color running for office.