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Commentary

Opinion: The case for ranked-choice voting

After a recount, incumbent Marc Elrich (left) won the democratic primary for Montgomery County executive by 32 votes over challenger David Blair (right). Photos courtesy of Montgomery County government, Blair campaign.

By Len Foxwell

The writer is founder and principal of Tred Avon Strategies, an Annapolis-based consulting firm, and is a lecturer in Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Leadership Education. During the 2022 primary election, he advised the gubernatorial campaigns of Rushern Baker and Doug Gansler.

Wes Moore — Maryland’s next governor, blessed with an effervescent presence and political qualities that have been described without irony as Obamaesque — prevailed in July’s Democratic primary with merely 32% of the primary vote.

Meanwhile, over on the opposite end of every personality spectrum one can imagine, sits Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D).

In 2018, this rumpled and irascible contrarian captured the Democratic nomination with a 77-vote margin over wealthy Potomac businessman David Blair, good for a 29% plurality in that multi-candidate field.  The presence of other candidates whose political philosophy and profile were similar to that of Blair, and therefore assuredly pulled votes that would otherwise have gone to him and not Elrich, added to the general sense of ambivalence over the outcome.

It appears that Elrich has secured a comparable mandate in this year’s rematch with Blair, with Montgomery Councilman Hans Riemer placing third.

After a recount, Elrich won renomination, and therefore re-election, with just 39% of the primary vote and a 32-vote margin over Blair.

Thirty-nine percent.  Thirty-two votes.  This, in a county with of nearly 1.1 million people. Let us not gloss over those numbers too quickly, for fear of becoming desensitized to them.

These are simply two of many instances where candidates advance or are elected to office based on a small plurality of eligible voters. While the candidates who emerge victorious may turn out to be great or at least good enough, that should not excuse the obvious flaws of this process.

Who is to say, for instance, that there were an appreciable number of voters who may have preferred to vote for, say, John King or Doug Gansler in the gubernatorial primary, but chose not to simply because somebody, somewhere determined that neither had a snowball’s chance of winning the nomination?  And that a vote for their preferred candidate would have helped this candidate, or hurt that candidate, or blah blah blah.

For that matter, why should a vote in 2018 for Roger Berliner – a relatively pro-business moderate whose views far more aligned with Blair than with Elrich – have worked to the defeat of the former and the election of the latter?

Given the natural desire of voters to be consequential to the outcome of elections, far too many voters subject themselves to such labyrinthine considerations rather than simply going to the polls — or the dropbox — and voting for the candidates they like best.

This is not okay.  Fortunately, there is a better way, and it’s called ranked choice voting.  Which can best be described in this limited space as an instant runoff election. Let’s use that fateful 2018 election as a case model, beginning with the actual results that were based upon our pluralist model:

Under the ranked-choice model, Montgomery County primary voters would not have had one vote.  Rather, they would have had six votes, ranked in order of preference.

Had Elrich or anyone else received an absolute majority as a first choice, the election would be over. Because nobody reached the threshold, however, the reallocation of votes would begin.

As the last place finisher, Bill Frick would be eliminated and his votes would be reallocated to the candidate who his supporters made their second choice.  Which would not have been Marc Elrich.

If George Leventhal remained at the bottom at the end of the next round, he would be eliminated, and his voters would then go to the second-choice candidate.  And so it would go, until one candidate reached the 50% threshold.

The benefits of this system are enormous, if not obvious.

Voters are liberated to vote for the true candidate of their choice because, even if their preferred candidate is eliminated in the early rounds, their second choice may prove pivotal to the outcome.  While there will always be those who are disappointed by the outcome of elections, a ranked-choice system will leave most voters content that their vote was not wasted.

Furthermore, a system that rewards candidates who are the least objectionable to the most people will incentivize candidates to build broad coalitions of support, rather than simply pinpointing the narrow but hardcore constituency necessary to hit a low win number,  If you assume that candidates would be less inclined to adopt extreme policies and rhetoric that merely electrify their party’s base, and more inclined to run on ideas that appeal to voters in that vast but overlooked “middle ground,” then you would be right.

A process that yields candidates who have cultivated favor, to varying degrees, with more than 50% of eligible voters also sets the stage for better governing outcomes. The candidate who is able to forge a wide-ranging consensus will come to office with a stronger mandate, a more extensive network of relationships and a more practical agenda than one who simply galvanizes a small but fervent base.  Shorn of the obligation to genuflect upon command to the loudest voices on the far right or far left, Democrats and Republicans might even talk to one another again and find opportunities for agreement.

Experience around the country has proven that the presumptive benefits are real. Ranked choice voting is a political reform that is uniquely of the moment — a footpath to voter re-engagement, healthier campaigns and better government at a time when we could certainly use more of all three.