On Wednesday, January 13th, the Maryland General Assembly (Maryland’s state legislature) began its 2016 legislative session. Media coverage leading up to the start of session suggests that budget battles and tax cuts will garner much of the group’s attention, however several electoral reform bills--some that would impact the entire state, and others that are strictly local--will also be considered. In addition to local bills that would allow Montgomery County (Maryland’s most populous county and home to FairVote) to expand the franchise for its County School Board elections, and increase the number of early voting sites, the Montgomery County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly will consider a bill that represents a small but important step forward in advancing ranked choice voting (RCV) in County elections.
The bill, MC 15-16, is sponsored by Ways and Means Committee Chair Sheila Hixson and would authorize the Montgomery County Council to adopt ranked choice voting (also known as “instant runoff voting”) for special elections(when a vacancy arises) for County Council or Executive. While the legislation does not mandate the Council to adopt RCV, it would give them several options to do so. The Council could choose to use RCV in the primary election, the general election, or could choose to hold a single special election (combine the primary and general) and avoid the costs and decreased voter turnout associated with holding two elections.
This effort to advance RCV comes after it was recommended for County elections by the Montgomery County Right to Vote Task Force in its 2014 concluding report. Since then, the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County and Common Cause Maryland have joined FairVote in supporting RCV in Montgomery County. RCV allows voters to rank as many or as few candidates as they want in order of choice. All first choices are counted, and the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. If a voter’s first choice candidate is eliminated, their vote instantly goes to their next choice. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority of votes and is declared the winner.
While County Council and County Executive vacancies are far and few between, (the last vacancy that required a special election was in 2009) RCV makes particular sense for special elections. Montgomery County--which is heavily Democratic--holds partisan elections for County Executive and County Council, including special elections. This means they currently hold party primaries, and those winners advance to a general election. Since there is no incumbent candidate to topple, and those who hold elected office can run without running the risk of giving up the office they currently hold, special elections naturally draw a more crowded field of candidates.
This is especially true in the Democratic primary--the election in which candidates and voters know the eventual winner will almost certainly be crowned. With the County’s new public financing laws, a once large field would likely be even larger. Ranked choice voting would uphold majority rule and make sure that a candidate with broad support from the primary electorate advanced to the general election. RCV also makes sense in the general election, as Independents and third parties typically see their highest levels of support in vacancy elections. With RCV, voters wouldn’t have to worry about a third-party candidate splitting the vote and playing the role of “spoiler.”
A third option that would be available to the County Council--combining the primary and general and holding a single special election with RCV--would allow the County to cut costs for elections that, by their very nature, aren’t planned or budgeted for. Several cities in other states have already saved money by eliminating primary or runoff elections and replacing them with a single RCV elections. In 2008, the County spent $1.35 million on a special election for a vacant District 4 County Council spot, and $1.44 million in 2009 to fill the spot again. Those costs could have been cut in half both years by holding a single election, while achieving the same democratic results. Turnout in these elections is also generally very low--just over 11% in both years, and consistently drops off between the primary and general, as voters know the outcome of the primary will determine the winner of the general election in a heavily democratic county. Using RCV to hold a single special election would empower voters to participate in one decisive election, rather than showing up for two.
While the bill is a small step forward for ranked choice voting, it’s a step in the right direction for Montgomery County electoral reform advocates. Since it is a local bill, the Montgomery County Delegation’s Economic Development Committee will consider the bill first, and decide whether to put in front of the rest of the County’s delegation. If the bill is approved by the Delegation, it would need confirmation from the rest of the Maryland General Assembly before the County Council could move forward with anything. In November of 2015, the County Council expressed its support for the enabling legislation with five members voting in favor, three against, and one abstaining.
To get involved with local efforts like the one in Montgomery County, let us know by visiting our “Get Involved” page.
Image Courtesy: Martin Falbisoner