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The Virginia Capitol building

A bill allowing Virginia voters to choose more than one candidate by ranking them on their ballots  narrowly advanced through subcommittee earlier this week.

House Bill 1103, introduced by Del. Sally Hudson, D-57th, of Charlottesville, would open a pilot program for ranked-choice voting in local elections, such as city council or school board contests. It was approved in a 4-3 vote Monday, Jan. 27, by the constitutional amendments subcommittee, part of the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

“Rank choice voting is a small change to ballots that makes a big difference for democracy,” Hudson said. “In a ranked-choice election, you don't just vote for one candidate, you get to rank them from most to least favorite.”

According to Hudson, after the votes are ranked, they are counted in a process similar to a traditional election. If one candidate wins more than half of the first choice votes, they win the election. 

If no candidate emerges as the majority winner in the first round, the lowest ranked candidate is eliminated. Voters who chose the losing candidate as their first choice will then have their votes added to the tally of the votes earned by their second-choice candidates. The elimination process continues until a candidate earns more than half of the votes. 

Hudson said diverse groups of people want to run for office, but that can sometimes lead to overcrowding in elections and a winning candidate who does not have much support, but who is able to eke out a win. She said she thinks this bill is the answer to that problem. 

“It makes sure that we can have a leader who represents a broad swath of the community, no matter how many candidates run,” Hudson said.

Ranked-choice voting is not new, at least 20 cities in the United States have adopted it. In 2018, Maine began using it for federal elections. Del. Patrick Hope, D-47th, of Arlington, is the chief co-patron for the bill. 

“We have found that in other places where this is practiced, it leads to more positive campaigns,” Hope said. “It means that candidates are working, so if they can't be a voters’ first choice, they can be their second choice, and not the negative campaigning that we've seen lately.” 

Localities would have to opt to use the voting method, and according to Hope, it would be up to them to fund it as well. 

“We've worked that out, the locality will bear the cost, not the state,” he said.

While Hope does not believe ranked-choice voting will happen at a state level, he said Arlington County residents are excited about the measure. 

“I know that there's also a bill floating around to do this statewide,” Hope said. “I thought if the rest of the state is not ready for that, I know Arlington certainly is.” 

Glenn Davis, R-84th, of Virginia Beach, is a Republican co-patron for HB 1103. He said he supports the legislation because it gives localities more freedom to govern. 

 “I always believe that localities should have the option to run elections the way that they think are most efficient and create the most involvement from the voters,” Davis said. “A lot of studies have shown that voters are more involved when there's more opportunity for the candidates -- when there's a ranked election system.” 

“So if there are localities out there that would like to try it in Virginia, they should be allowed to give it a shot,” he added. 

Davis said the legislation had worked well in other districts and he signed on to encourage voter participation and make the electoral process better. 

“I think any way that we can run elections that provide more information, more access to voters in manners that get them more engaged, the better off our democratic process is,” he said. 

HB 1103 reported out of subcommittee, 4-3. Delegates voting yes include: Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-21st, of Virginia Beach; Mark Levine, D-45th, of Alexandria; Marcia Price, D-95th, of Newport News and Marcus Simon, D-53rd, of Fairfax. 

Delegates voting no include: Dawn M. Adams, D-68th, of Richmond; Les Adams, R-16th, of Pittsylvania and Chris Runion, R-25th, of Augusta.

The bill will now move to the House Committee on Privileges and Elections, which meets Friday, Jan. 31. 

Another bill that deals with ranked-choice voting proposed an open primary for all state-wide elections. A single ballot would list all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, and the four most popular candidates would continue to the general election. The vote on HB 360 was continued to 2021, and will not be heard this year in the General Assembly. 

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