The race for two At-Large seats on the D.C. Council attracted 23 candidates.
When Matt Murray emerged from his polling place at the Chevy Chase Rec Center on Tuesday, he admitted he was a little bewildered by the ballot he had to vote on — notably the D.C. Council's At-Large race and its 23 active candidates.
"I actually looked some of them up so I knew who not to vote for, but there were so many that I stopped looking at who to vote for," he said. "I don't think it's good for democracy. I think 23 candidates is a bit much. We should have weeded that down."
As the dust settles after Tuesday's election, there are some people in D.C. who agree with Murray. And they see the council's crowded At-Large race as the perfect example of why the city should adopt ranked-choice voting, a system that lets voters rank candidates in order of preference and then triggers an immediate runoff if no one candidate emerges with 50% of the vote in the first round.
"Ranked-choice voting is a great fit for any election with more than two choices," says Rob Richie, president of FairVote, a Maryland-based group pushing for electoral reforms, including ranked-choice voting.
Under D.C.'s current system, each voter chooses one candidate for an elected office, or in the case of the At-Large race, two. While it's a time-tested and easy-to-understand way of voting, critics say it falls short when races feature a large number of candidates.
And this year's At-Large race was one of the most crowded in city history. The large number of candidates was a product of two factors: a rare opening when Councilmember David Grosso announced he wouldn't run for a third term, and the city's new public financing program that has made it far easier for more hopefuls to fund their runs for office. (Because of the pandemic, city officials also lowered signature requirements for candidates to qualify for the ballot.)
While the race featured a broad diversity of candidates, it also left many voters perplexed. It's tough to get to know enough about that many candidates, especially when many of them don't differ dramatically on many issues, even the most well-informed voter. Candidate debates were challenging, not just because they had to be held virtually, but also because they had to be split up over multiple days to accommodate all the contenders.
And there were even more practical challenges: the large number of candidates forced the D.C. Board of Elections to print an abnormally long ballot, one that displayed awkwardly on electronic voting machines that required voters to click through multiple screens to see all their choices.
"It kept saying more, more, more," said Murray, who voted on an electronic machine.
More broadly, say critics, the current system of one person, one vote can lead to voters choosing candidates less for who they really want to win and more for who they don't want to. And in the case of the crowded At-Large race, it also leaves the eventual winners with less than majority support. Incumbent Councilmember Robert White and Christina Henderson, both of whom emerged victorious in the At-Large race, took 26% and 15% of the votes, respectively.
"Especially when a race has numerous candidates, it is overwhelming to navigate the inside baseball and strategic voting required to make change. Newcomers, outsiders, and people from low-income communities who consider running for office often don't stand a fighting chance of getting elected. Fears of 'splitting the vote' wastes so much of our political energy," reads the website of Rank The Vote D.C., a coalition of organizations supporting a move to ranked-choice voting.
Many of these same problems fueled a push for ranked-choice voting in Montgomery County, where in 2018 there were 33 candidates vying for four At-Large seats. (The county also has a public financing program.) And while some elected officials had initially been skeptical of the new way of voting, by 2019 the county's delegation to Annapolis unanimously supported a bill to implement it. (It hasn't been passed by the Maryland General Assembly, though.)
Ranked-choice voting is already in use in parts of California and Colorado, as well as in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Takoma Park, Maryland. Maine has started using ranked-choice voting, and it will be adopted in New York City next year. Earlier this summer, it was used for the first time in Arlington County for a Democratic primary.
But critics say the system is complicated and could likely confuse voters. Writing earlier this year, former Republican candidate to the Maryland House of Delegates Patricia Fenati decried ranked-choice voting as "too confusing, too expensive, too manipulative, too complicated to tally, [and] too intimidating for voters." The conservative Heritage Foundation has also weighed in against it, saying it would "allow candidates with marginal support from voters to win elections."
This week in Massachusetts, a majority of voters seemed to agree with that sentiment, rejecting a ballot measure that would have brought ranked-choice voting to the state. "It's complex, and many voters didn't really grasp what it would mean for them," Secretary of State Bill Galvin said on Wednesday.
But Richie of FairVote says that while a transition to ranked-choice voting would require educating voters, they would likely catch on quickly.
"People, in fact, think ranked-choice voting psychology before they get a chance to express it. It's not that people didn't have opinions about more than one candidate running in the At-Large race, they just couldn't express that right. And so being able to have a ballot that says, 'Here's your first choice and here's your second choice and here's your third choice' and it's a smart thing to do to vote your favorite first and your second-favorite second or third-favorite third. If you can get those points across, the ballots are very easy to fill out."
Grosso introduced bills to bring ranked-choice voting to D.C. two times over the last five years, but neither even got a public hearing. The tide, however, may be turning.
Earlier this year, the editorial board of the Washington Post endorsed the new system, largely out of fear that disgraced former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans would be able to sneak to victory in a crowded Democratic primary. (He ended up losing.) More recently, 11 of the 23 candidates for the At-Large seats — White and Henderson included — told Washington City Paper they supported ranked-choice voting.
On WAMU's "The Politics Hour" on Friday, Henderson — a former aide to Grosso — said it's likely to be the first bill she introduces upon taking office.
"The system isn't working," she said. "If we are going to continue to move ahead with [public financing] to truly diversify the number of candidate, we need a different a way of how we elect our folks."
But she may have to convince at least one skeptic: Chairman Phil Mendelson.
"The bottom line is it needs to be studied before we act on what appears attractive," he says. "Ranked-choice voting doesn't get rid of 23 candidates, it just provides another way of tabulating votes. I'm not sure that this actually improves things."