Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash.

This article was first published on November 12, 2020. As recent candidate exits from the Ward 3 DC Council primary race have sparked new conversations about ranked choice voting, with divided fields in other races as well, we thought this would be a beneficial time to share this article again. In November 2021, a hearing was held on the legislation discussed below.

This past November, voters in the District had to choose between about two dozen candidates for two at-large DC Council seats. In such a crowded race, DC voters have to guess who others will vote for, or risk throwing their vote away.

In DC’s 2020 general election, the at-large council seats were won with only 26% and 15% of the vote — incumbent councilmember Robert White and Christina D. Henderson, respectively.

But a bill introduced in the DC Council late last year could change how elections winners are calculated. The “Ranked Choice Voting Amendment Act of 2019,” which has not had a hearing yet, would allow DC to use ranked choice voting for both primary and general elections, including for the DC Council, the DC Mayor, and the DC Attorney General, starting in 2022.

This bill was introduced by four councilmembers: David Grosso (at-large), Elissa Silverman (at-large), Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), and Mary Cheh (Ward 3), and co-sponsored by councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6). In this bill’s introduction, Councilmember Grosso writes:

Too often in the District of Columbia, we see victors emerge from a crowded field with far less than a majority of the vote. That maybe even more likely to occur now as the Fair Elections program I introduced, and this Council passed has successfully encouraged more residents to seek elected office.

Ranked Choice Voting, or Instant Runoff Voting, ensures that individuals receive a majority of the vote of the electorate, by allowing voters to rank the choices on their ballots in order of preference.

If seven of 13 councilmembers vote for this bill, it may become law, and DC voters may use ranked choice ballots in future elections. Besides the four councilmembers who sponsored the bill, three other councilmembers have expressed support for this bill including Christina D. Henderson (at-large), Robert White (at-large), and Janeese Lewis George (Ward 4).

Ranked choice voting is already being used on some levels of government in 28 states, including in the City of Takoma Park in Maryland, and the Arlington Democrats in Virginia. Let’s take a minute to see how the process works.

How does ranked choice voting work?

What is ranked choice voting? There are two parts: the ballot, and the calculation of who wins based on the ballot.

The ballot side is straightforward: which candidate do you most want to win? If your first choice wasn’t an option, then which candidate do you most want to win? Voters can list out their preferences without thinking much about the calculations. Here is an example ballot, an excerpt from Maine’s 2020 general election ballot:

Image from Maine voting ballot.

The calculation is a little more complex than the ballot being cast. There are many ways you could calculate a winner of a ranked ballot, and we have to decide the calculation ahead of time. The most popular calculation approach is called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). IRV calculation is so popular that people often use the term interchangeably with ranked voting.

In Instant Runoff Voting, it takes several rounds of calculations to determine the winner. On each round we check: is there a clear winner yet? If not, remove the least popular candidate from the pool, and try again.

Round-by-round elimination may be familiar if you have watched any reality competition show: think of “The Great British Bake Off,” “Survivor,” “The Weakest Link,” or “Ru Paul’s Drag Race”. One by one, competitors are eliminated from the competition until there is one clear winner. Instead of a dramatic episode for each round, Instant Runoff Voting uses the ranked ballots.

How are candidates eliminated in IRV? In each round, we total up everyone’s top choice candidate. If there is a winner, we are done already! If there is no winner yet, then the person with the least top-choice votes gets eliminated in this round.

How do we calculate the winner? That varies by state. In some states a winner must have more than 50% of votes, in others a winner must have more than 40% of votes. In DC there is no minimum number of votes required today, but the proposed bill would raise it to 50%, a majority.

Why is it called instant runoff voting?

Instant Runoff Voting is a lot like how we do runoff elections when needed. When a regular election has no clear winner, many states resolve this by doing a follow-up runoff election. This runoff election has fewer candidates to choose from, usually just two, so there will be a clear winner.

For example, Georgia is a state which requires that winning candidates win a majority of votes. Several races in the November 2020 general election did not result in a majority-winning candidate. Georgia will have two runoff elections, one for the state and local positions (December 1, 2020), and a separate one for the federal positions (January 5, 2021). Each of these races will be between the top two candidates in each of the races, and the winner of each will have the majority of votes.

If Georgia had been using ranked choice voting with Instant Runoff Voting for these, then this additional ballot-casting for the Senate seats would not be required; they could calculate the winner based on peoples’ ranked preferences. Instead, Georgia’s citizens have to cast entirely new ballots on each of these runoff elections.

What are the benefits of ranked choice voting?

Ranked choice voting helps to avoid this voter’s dilemma: can I vote for my favorite candidate, or should I strategically vote for the least-bad frontrunner? It is easy to feel frustration on either side of this choice. You do not want to vote against your preferences, and you also do not want to “throw away your vote” on a candidate who is less likely to win.

This dilemma also discourages the US from having more than two parties. Any candidates who run outside of the main two parties may take votes away from the more similar candidate, giving the win to the less similar candidate. This is called “vote splitting.” When a candidate loses by a small margin due to a similar candidate running in the race, that is called the “spoiler effect.” lists many potential benefits of ranked choice voting, including: “Promotes Majority Support, Discourages Negative Campaigning, Provides More Choice for Voters, Saves Money When Replacing Preliminaries or Runoffs, Promotes Reflective Representation, Minimizes Strategic Voting, and Increased Participation from Military and Overseas Voters”

What are some other alternative voting methods?

Some critics of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) calculation are concerned that IRV does not reliably calculate the most ideal candidate as well as some alternatives. There are many calculation methods possible other than just IRV. Supporters of IRV over the alternative calculations like that IRV is simple to explain. If you would like to read more about these alternatives, there are many calculations that satisfy the “condorcet criterion,” which may produce more ideal outcomes.

How to learn more

Right now there are several local regional and national groups that are encouraging the adoption of ranked voting, such as Rank the Vote DC, FairVote Virginia, and FairVote. You can try out ranked choice voting yourself using the online tool RankIt. Try it with a group of friends to determine what is the best Thanksgiving dessert, or the best video chat software.

Casey Watts lives in Mt. Vernon Triangle, DC. Casey enjoys explaining complex concepts very clearly. He is the author of the applied psychology book “Debugging Your Brain”. He works as a software product manager for US Asylum, living in Mt. Vernon Triangle, DC. He co-created “DC Bubble Party" and "DC Code & Coffee," he plays woodwind instruments with "DC's Different Drummers," and he line dances with "DC Rawhides."