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Would 'instant runoff' voting have altered the Virginia Senate race?
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Would 'instant runoff' voting have altered the Virginia Senate race?

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If Virginia had ranked choice voting, would Culpeper’s Nick Freitas be facing Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine in November’s Virginia Senate race instead of Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart?

On Saturday, Freitas said he wouldn’t want to speculate, but that ranked choice is a solid policy and he’ll continue to support legislation in the state house which would give Virginia voters that option.

“I’ll be carrying the legislation again,” said Frietas, who co-sponsored unsuccessful bills in 2017 and 2018. Freitas represents the 30th House District which includes Madison and Orange counties and part of Culpeper County.

Ranked choice, or “instant runoff,” voting allows voters to rank their candidates according to preference. If no candidate achieves a majority, the candidate in last place is eliminated and those voters’ second choices get their votes. The counting process is continued in rounds until one candidate wins a simple majority.

“I think the Republican primary for U.S. Senate was a really great example of where a ranked choice voting election would have really benefitted voters, and one that our organization watched with interest,” said Rixeyville resident Elizabeth Melson, founder of FairVote Virginia.

Melson said the June primary election is a “textbook example” of how having a third-party candidate creates a “spoiler effect.”

Candidates, she said, don’t want to be labeled as spoilers, and with just 1.8 percent of the vote separating Stewart and Freitas—and Jackson pulling 12 percent—an “instant runoff” might have changed the outcome.

“This race was so close between the front runners,” Melson said. “If voters would have been able to rank their candidates in order of preference, we may have had a different outcome.”

Geoffrey Skelly with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Politics agreed that the outcome in Virginia’s June Senate primary could have shifted under a different system of tabulation.

“It’s of course impossible to know for sure who Jackson voters were more likely to prefer between Freitas and Stewart,” Skelley said. “But given how close the race was, with Stewart winning just 44.9 percent to 43.1 percent, a ranked-choice voting system could have potentially altered the outcome.”

While several cities have implemented the voting system, Maine voters made history as the first state to try out the ranked-choice voting system on June 12 when they selected party nominees for governor. Three Republicans and seven Democrats ran in that state’s dual primary elections.

When the ballots were tabulated, Republican businessman Shawn Moody secured 56 percent of the vote while Democrat Janet Mills, the state attorney general, received 54 percent.

Maine voters also voted 54 to 46 percent to retain ranked choice votes, which they first approved in 2016.

As an intellectual exercise, Skelley mused that if 34,000 of the 36,508 voters who backed Jackson cast a second-choice ballot that would have been similar to what Maine’s recent rate was in its primary.

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With Stewart up 5,289 votes, Freitas would have need to win those other 34,000 votes by 5,290 votes to beat Stewart in a hypothetical RCV election, Skelley said, meaning Freitas would need 19,645 of Jackson’s second-choice votes to 14,355 for Stewart.

Could that have happened?

“Maybe,” said Skelley. Jackson’s strongest area was Hampton Roads where Freitas also did well – 45 percent to Stewart’s 38 percent.

“Perhaps Freitas would have won over more of the Jackson voters in the vote-rich Virginia Beach than Stewart,” he said. “At the same time, Stewart might have done better in another city in that region, such as Portsmouth or Hampton, both of which he won, so perhaps he would have attracted more voters from Jackson’s camp in those cities.”

Stewart likely would have received more second-choice votes in Northern Virginia, where he won 49 to 39 percent over Freitas, which would have been helpful to the Prince William County supervisor, Skelley added.

Freitas said the latest attempt to implement ranked choice for Virginia’s voters died in the appropriations committee after it was amended to allow localities to enact it if they chose.

“It was a little bit too far, too fast,” the delegate said. “We decided it would only apply to local elections rather than drastically change the way Virginians vote and that would also allow us to work out whatever kinks might show up in a local election.”

Local elections are good place to start voting reform, he said, because there are often multiple candidates running for several open seats.

The fiscal impact of converting Virginia’s election system also hampered the effort to pass legislation this past session, the local delegate said.

“The cost could be fairly considerable with respect to getting all of the software online, but there are also good bi-partisan organizations out there willing to help footing the bill,” he said.

Culpeper registrar James Clements said the county’s new optical scan polling machines, which are less than a year old, could be reprogrammed to tabulate instant runoffs, but that it would take time and training if the county or state decided to implement a different voting method.

“At this time, I don’t know how much it would cost,” Clements said.

Melson said that ranked choice voting also tends to change the way candidates behave on the campaign trail.

“It has been shown to incentivize civilized campaigns,” she said.

Skelley called hypothesizing about the Senate primary using a ranked choice filter a “fun exercise to consider.”

“Maybe there is a case for Virginia to look at using ranked choice voting in the future to ensure that candidates earn majority support to win,” he said. “It has its issues, but Maine’s example is at least making us consider alternatives.”

Marla McKenna can be reached at or 540/825-0773.

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