As the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election comes to a close, the campaigning has become shockingly negative. Republican Ed Gillespie’s campaign has utilized anti-immigrant rhetoric and attempted to portray his Democratic opponent, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, as responsible for the rise of the gang, MS-13. Meanwhile Northam depicts his opponent as hateful and an instrument of President Donald Trump, while evoking a connection between Gillespie and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August.
This level of animosity may have turned some potential voters off of supporting either of the candidates. Recent polling suggests that neither of the candidates can expect much more than a plurality victory in the election on Tuesday, Nov. 8. An aggregate of 24 polls taken since the beginning of September finds Northam receiving on average 47 percent of the vote while Gillespie garnering 42 percent. This leaves about ten percent of respondents who are either undecided, planning to vote for a third party candidate like Libertarian Clifford Hyra, or unlikely to vote at all. Evidently there is some degree of dissatisfaction with both candidates that cannot be adequately expressed in a winner-take-all election.
Situations where both of the major party candidates appear unsatisfactory to a large portion of the population have grown increasingly common. However, modifying the electoral system could make huge strides in addressing this dilemma. If the Virginia legislature implemented ranked choice voting (RCV), voters could express their dissatisfaction with the candidates without fear of wasting their vote.
Thus, a voter that prefers Hyra to either of the major party candidates but dislikes Gillespie most of all, could rank Hyra as their preference followed by Northam. Use of this system would allow third party candidates in Virginia like Hyra or any of the 16 third party candidates running for the House of Delegates to actually mount a challenge.
Fear of being ranked second or even third would be a prime motivating factor for major party candidates like Gillespie and Northam to temper their negativity. When a candidate faces only one other notable opponent, he or she only need to convince voters that they would be preferable to their rival. However, through the use of RCV, the candidates must make an effort to appeal to the largest portion of the electorate as possible.
There have previously been attempts in Virginia to implement RCV in elections. House Bill 2315, was introduced in the Virginia General Assembly in January 2017, and would have enacted RCV in all state elections for the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and the Commonwealth’s General Assembly. While the bill is no longer on the floor, its introduction suggests the possibility for future action. Additionally, on several occasions, the Arlington County Democratic Committee has utilized RCV to nominate local candidates.
So there remains an interest in implementing RCV in Virginia. And while all eligible voters should exercise their right to be heard at the ballot box in the Old Dominion on Tuesday, they should also remember that a better election system exists.