As crowded DC primaries approach, supporters push ranked-choice voting

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When DC voters check their ballots for this month’s Democratic primary, they’ll have to pick one candidate in each race, sometimes from a long list — in Ward 3, nine people are on the ballot for the seat of the council; in Ward 5, seven people; across town, four people are looking for an at-large seat.

Narrowing it down to just one can lead to strategic thinking among some voters — like those who favor a lesser-known candidate, but end up voting for the person they think has the best chance of defeating their lesser favorite in the race.

Advocates who are pushing a bill that would change DC Elections Law to allow rank-choice voting in the June 21 primary as a good example of why they think it would be a better system.

“Voters have to decide who is eligible, who is the person who could split the vote, I really like that person but he’s probably not a viable candidate,” said Brianna McGowan, who heads the organization Delicious Democracy. “Voters have this weird mental math of figuring out where their vote is going to count instead of just focusing on what matters to them and the issues in their community. Preferential voting would totally change the conversation.

Preferential voting was recently adopted in New York for its last mayoral election and is being used in other cities across the country. How it works: Voters list their favorite candidates in order, from most preferred to least preferred. On election night, each voter’s first choice is counted – and if no candidate gets more than half of the first choice votes, the tabulators drop the candidate who received the fewest votes.

For voters whose first choice was hit, the tabulator then counts their second choices. The process continues until one candidate obtains a majority.

Although it may seem complicated, the current primary in DC, according to supporters, is a concrete example of why this system could work better.

With nine people in the running in Ward 3, Sean Dugar – who advocates for preferential voting with the organization More Voice DC – notes: “Someone can win with only 15% of the voters having voted for them.

November overall winners the election may weigh on the council’s hard-debated bill to implement preferential voting.

DC debates whether to move to a ranked voting system

Some of this year’s candidates can see how their elections might turn out differently if preferential voting were instituted in the district – as in the race for General Council, where three candidates seek to oust incumbent Anita Bonds. “It’s a tool to really select candidates who are more representative of what everyone wants, rather than who gets the most votes in a situation where the highest can get 21% and still win,” said Dexter Williams, a Democrat. who runs in this race.

Before Williams decided to run against Bonds, he worked as an advocate for election changes like public campaign finance, which DC implemented before the last election and which Williams uses now.

Bonds, who has been on the council for a decade, faced two challengers in his last primary election and still won 52% of the vote, with the other two splitting the rest roughly equally.

She opposes ranked voting (and her office did not respond to inquiries from The Washington Post on the subject), while her three challengers this year all support it.

“I personally feel very strongly that this is a process to dilute parties,” Bonds said during a debate last month. The DC Democratic Party also opposes the ranked ballot bill, and a large group of party leaders have testified against it, saying the process could confuse and disenfranchise some voters. “I believe in one vote, one person. One person, one vote. And so having the opportunity to say “oh, maybe that person is second, third”, that, in my opinion, does not correspond to the way people really perceive and value their vote.

Bonds’ critics – including housing advocates unhappy with her longtime leadership of the council’s housing committee – fear she’s headed for another win because her three challengers will split anti-Bonds votes.

Anita Bonds, enigma of the DC Council

Preferential voting, they say, could change that. “[Bonds is] barely campaigning at the moment. I think she feels very comfortable,” said McGowan, who went door-to-door for several left-leaning candidates through the DC for Democracy organization, but did not turn up. involved in the race at large. “Under the preferential vote, she would have to work harder and really win people’s votes. I think she could win with a ranking system, but that would be a totally different campaign.

This year’s candidates know they must win an election under current laws if they ever want the opportunity to change the system. Williams thinks voters are frustrated with what he sees as Bonds’ lack of response to resident demands and his ineffectiveness in passing major legislation in council. “What I hear on the ground when I speak to voters is that there is going to be a change, whether we use preferential voting or we use our current system.

Nate Fleming, who has won election in the past to be DC’s shadow congressman and is now running in the overall race, said he basically sees himself as running against Bonds, not in a field of four people. In 2014, on a shoestring budget, he came closest of four distant challengers to overthrow Bonds; this year it has raised significantly more from donors and the city is injecting public funds.

As of May 10, Bonds had edged his opponents, with Fleming raising significantly more than Williams and Lisa Gore. Bonds had spent less than $10,000 from his campaign coffer, leaving him more than $200,000 in the bank, while Gore had spent the most, over $102,000, and Williams and Fleming had both spent over $55,000. $ and had a lot more than Gore. spend.

“I hadn’t given much thought to ‘preferential voting,’ Fleming said. He touts his vigorous campaign – with senders and text messages, he says he knocked on more than 20,000 doors in his near-daily outreach. “I believe by doing this we’re going to end up having the most votes in this race.”

When Fleming knocks on doors, some voters say they recognize his name from his gigantic sign on Capitol Hill, far larger than the yard signs pasted across the city. He begins each visit by outlining his resume — from southeast DC, to Morehouse College, to Berkeley Law, to a master’s degree he just completed at Harvard, and a doctorate he’s about to complete at Penn. — and watch voters’ eyes widen with each school he names.

“It’s a head-to-head race for me,” he said.

Of course, Gore said the same thing — she thinks it’s a two-man race, but the person other than Bonds is her, not Fleming.

“There was definitely this pressure early on to give up and let the people who other people thought might have a better chance of winning the race, win the race,” Gore said. “We hear a lot about the splitting of the vote. Preferential voting would pretty much eliminate all of that.

As things stand, Gore said she fears she and the other two challengers will split the vote, giving Bonds the win. “That’s what keeps me awake at night,” she says.

She tries to argue that her former job in the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Housing and Urban Development makes her qualified to take on Bonds council’s role of overseeing the city’s housing programs, a job that she says Bonds is failing because she is too comfortable with the mayor.

McGowan, the ranked voting advocate, pointed to the endorsements as a sign that like-minded voters are torn between candidates. Groups that sometimes support the same candidates have scattered in this race, with Greater Washington backing Gore, the Washington Teachers’ Union backing Williams, and Jews United for Justice backing Fleming.

“You totally feel or see that there are some pretty solid, progressive people in the race who, unfortunately, are splitting the vote,” McGowan said. Speaking on behalf of voters who follow any of these organisations’ recommendations, she said: ‘It sucks that I’m voting for someone who I don’t think really has a chance of winning because a lot of candidates split the vote to the point that it could be a solid path for the incumbent to win again.

Dugar, who has worked on elections in cities that use ranked ballots, said he also hopes a new system will lead to a better attitude in DC politics.

“They never use the term ‘competitor’. They say ‘my colleague in this race,’” Dugar said of cities where candidates are trying to win not just a vote against another person, but also second or third choice votes. “You go from a place of no and a place of opposition to a place of ‘yes and’. Yes, that’s a great idea, and here’s how I would build on it. It creates more of an ambitious campaign than the kind of bashing, dragging people down, “your idea is awful” framework that we certainly see in races across the district. »

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