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For a time, it was hoped that Virginia’s capital would be the first to show other local governments that it was prudent to make big changes to a fundamental democratic process: how people elect their city councils and county councils. .
Richmond City Councilor Andreas Addison was one of the few local officials to sponsor a plan to bring ranked voting to city council races from 2024, a change that supporters say would reduce the extremism and division, would encourage candidates to present themselves in a positive and consensual manner. campaigns and making local governments more responsive to the people they serve.
But by the time Richmond officials voted Sept. 6 to reject the idea as too confusing and untested for a city with a racially charged history, Addison joined skeptics in rejecting it.
“Is this going to cause confusion at the ballot box?” Addison asked rhetorically describing some of the concerns he had heard. The board voted 6-3 to drop the proposal, a decision finalized in a Monday night meeting without discussion.
The hard no in Richmond is a setback for supporters of a state law passed in 2020 that gave cities and counties the chance to try voting by choice in elections for local governing bodies. No local government has adopted the new method – in which voters rank their favorite candidates and votes are reallocated until one candidate wins a majority – but Richmond was seen as furthest along in the process.
Proponents of ranked choice say each community has its own issues to address, and they predict other cities and counties may be more welcoming to the idea in the coming months. But the initial defeat in heavily Democratic Richmond shows that resistance to change could be a formidable obstacle as supporters try to convince local politicians to tinker with the voting systems under which they won.
“I kind of hoped that Richmond would lead the way,” said Jonathan Davis, president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, a group dedicated to building black political influence that endorsed the ranked choice plan. “But unfortunately that’s not the case, again. We tend to be a little hesitant to do things in Richmond.
In preferential choice elections, voters complete their ballot by ranking all the candidates for a particular position, marking their first choice, second choice, etc. If no candidate receives a majority of the votes on the first count, the lowest performing candidate drops out of the race. That candidate’s first-preference votes are then reallocated to the remaining candidates based on who those voters chose as their second-preference. The cycle repeats until one candidate reaches majority.
Until another locality in Virginia chooses to adopt the system, ranked voting will only be an option in party-run nominating processes like conventions or firehouse primaries. State election officials have already passed regulations on the operation of government-run preferential-choice elections, but they have yet to be implemented.
One of the major sticking points in Richmond was that ranked voting could only be implemented for city council races, not in Richmond School Board contests or more high-profile campaigns nationwide. of the city for the position of mayor of Richmond.
Appearing last week at City Hall in Richmond, Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, who sponsored the law making preferential voting an option, said her General Assembly colleagues wanted to start small. This did not apply to school board races, she said, as some lawmakers expressed concern that school board members might vote for election changes without being able to budget money for them. pay.
“I didn’t share it,” Hudson told the Richmond council. “Because I was afraid that we would encounter this question.”
Changing the way Richmond’s mayors are elected, Hudson said, would require a change to the city’s charter, a step Richmond’s own representatives would typically have to initiate themselves. Even some Ranked Choice supporters acknowledged that voters in Richmond could be confused by having two different voting systems in place for local offices on the ballot at the same time.
Richmond’s racial divisions proved to be another complication.
At the meeting earlier this month, representatives from the Richmond branch of the NAACP spoke out against preferential voting, arguing that a state that still does not automatically restore felons to vote upon release should have higher priorities for elections and democratic participation. .
“I don’t think Richmond is ready for this,” said James “JJ” Minor, president of the NAACP of Richmond. “A majority of Americans don’t know that.”
In a lengthy speech, Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, one of four black members of the nine-person council, noted a racial streak among those who spoke out for and against preferential voting, saying, “It’s white and black.”
“I don’t support making changes to this process unless I absolutely know it will bring us closer to equity and inclusion,” Robertson said, insisting that a gentrified Richmond should not not be used as a “test model” for new democratic reforms. .
Councilor Reva Trammell, who represents a majority-minority district in south Richmond, struck a similar tone, suggesting preferential voting was a ploy that could harm the “poorest of the poor.”
“I think that’s wrong,” Trammell said. “I don’t think we have enough information and there’s something political about it. And this thing must be killed.
Councilman Michael Jones said he was put off by how some ranked choice voting supporters seemed to be talking about it as a way to get rid of elected officials they don’t like.
“It’s disgusting,” he said. “If you’re upset with what someone is doing, run away… But don’t say ‘this is a way to get him out’.”
In addition to its past as a former Confederate capital, Richmond has a more recent history of trying to limit black political power. In 1970, the city annexed much of neighboring Chesterfield County, a move that reduced the city’s percentage of black voters by adding thousands of new white voters. The annexation was challenged on the grounds that its primary purpose was to maintain white control of the city, a dispute that ultimately led to federal courts suspending Richmond’s elections for several years and the creation of a voting system based on neighborhoods that gave more power to predominantly black neighborhoods. choose their own representatives.
In the early 2000s, when Richmond was considering moving to a strong mayoral form of government with the chief executive elected separately by the entire city, there were similar suspicions that the change would reduce black political power. This is part of what led to a local election rule requiring the mayoral winner to be the highest voter in at least five of the city’s nine districts.
Reacting to comments from colleagues, Councilor Katherine Jordan, one of the lead sponsors of the Preferential Choice Voting Plan, acknowledged Richmond’s “exceptionally shameful voting history”. But she said she was confident the change would reduce the “political game”.
“We categorize things all the time in our daily lives,” Jordan said. “If we want our elected officials to have the broadest possible support, then the answer to that is to allow the broadest possible voter base to have their say.”
Davis, the president of Crusade for Voters, said he wasn’t sold on preferential voting when he first heard about it. But he became convinced that it works as advertised after looking at its implementation elsewhere.
“It doesn’t dilute black voting strength,” Davis said. “It’s quite the opposite, if anything.”
Skeptics and supporters of Richmond’s proposal said things could turn out differently if the General Assembly changes the law so the city can adopt ranked ballots for all local elections, not just municipal elections. It’s unclear how a proposal to expand the law would be received, with Republicans now having a stronger hand in the legislature than they did when the original ranked-choice legislation was passed.
Democrat Mary Peltola’s recent loss to polarizing former Gov. Sarah Palin in a special election in Alaska has sparked fresh criticism of the system from some on the right. However, some Virginia Republicans appear to be warming to the concept after it was used in the 2021 GOP convention to name the government now. Glenn Youngkin, who led the ticket that snapped the party’s 10-game losing streak in the statewide election.
For now, ranked picks advocates say they’ll work toward different outcomes in other places that only start the Richmond discussion.
“Conversations are taking place in Charlottesville, Albemarle, Fredericksburg, Arlington, Alexandria. Norfolk begins,” said Liz White, executive director of UpVote Virginia, a new, nonpartisan ranked choice advocacy group that previously pushed for redistricting reform under the name OneVirginia2021. “I think it’s important to note that each locality really has its own set of quirks, idiosyncrasies, and needs.”
Charlottesville City Councilman Juandiego Wade, who currently leans in favor of ranked ballot, said his city could potentially address the issue by the end of the year. He said Charlottesville is so early in the process that he doesn’t know exactly where his four colleagues are at and hasn’t heard much from the public either way.
“It just has to be a very strong voter education process,” Wade said. “Whatever we do.
by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury
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