Montgomery County could be the next jurisdiction to embrace ranked choice voting — if the legislature stays out of the way | GUEST COMMENTARY
By Walter Olson
For The Baltimore Sun • Jan 27, 2023 at 6:00 am
The Maryland House of Delegates will offer a live video stream of one-third of its floor sessions during the 2020 General Assembly. (Paul W. Gillespie / Baltimore Sun Media Group)
Ranked choice voting made big strides across the country in November, with Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and the state of Nevada voting to join Maine, Alaska, New York City, and dozens of other cities and towns across the country in embracing the intuitive yet powerful voting method. And one of the next big advances for RCV may take place here in Maryland, provided the General Assembly in this year’s session agrees to do one big thing: get out of the way.
For years Montgomery County, the state’s biggest jurisdiction, has been asking to use RCV in races for executive, council and other county offices. The elected council and administration of the D.C. suburban county have lined up behind the idea, and so has the county’s delegation in Annapolis. But it can’t proceed without enabling legislation from the legislature. Last year, however, the relevant bill once again died in committee, leaving Montgomery unable to move forward. That needs to change this year.
The case for ranked choice voting is simple. When voters can indicate a preference order for candidates, rather than picking one candidate only, they can send a clearer message about whom they want. The method helps elevate candidates who are broadly popular with many voters, and reassures voters that they aren’t “wasting” their vote by starting with the pick they think is truly best.
It can also encourage more constructive campaigning. When candidates seek to solicit second and third choices from their rivals’ supporters, they have reason to campaign among more kinds of voters and avoid getting too nasty.
Surveys find voters in practice don’t consider ranking to be particularly complicated or confusing, and once they’ve voted that way, they don’t want to go back to the old system.
Ranked choice also gives voters reason to educate themselves about a wider range of candidates, including deciding which candidates from other camps they would be more (or less) willing to live with. This quest for areas in common might even help in building community bridges. Many Republicans are convinced — wrongly I think — that RCV is somehow biased against them. In fact, ranking in countries like Australia and Ireland has proved neutral between sides of the spectrum, and conservatives there do fine. Some point to Sarah Palin’s loss in her recent House race. The truth is that Palin was simply unpopular with too many Alaskans, while Democrats had a candidate with unusual crossover appeal in Rep. Mary Peltola. Palin even told voters not to use their second-choice votes, so it wasn’t surprising that she did poorly at harvesting them. Other conservative Alaska Republicans, including Gov. Mike Dunleavy, were winning statewide. In Virginia, the GOP itself used ranked choice voting to pick Glenn Youngkin as its candidate for governor in 2021 and went on to score a standout win.
Montgomery County, of course, is overwhelmingly Democratic — it last elected a local Republican in 2002 — and that, aside from a general willingness to go first in trying things out, points up one further reason the idea is popular there. Winning the Democratic primary in Montgomery is tantamount to election, and it’s not unheard of for the Dem field to be a crowded one. In one high-profile example not long ago, a candidate secured the office of county executive with an underwhelming 29 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Ranking is a step toward making a real contest of it, in part by enabling more effective coalition politics.
The General Assembly can play a productive role in one other way. In Maryland, the state not only approves localities’ choice of voting equipment but also lends assistance in procuring it. Maryland should make sure that equipment procured in the future supports both conventional voting and RCV, whichever method is chosen. The cost for this is modest if planned in advance, but less modest if election administrators have to scramble after the fact to retrofit their setup.
The General Assembly need not tie the issue to any other election controversies. Ideas like open primaries and nonpartisan primaries (whether California-style top-two “jungle” or multi-candidate, as with Alaska’s new system) may be good or bad, but there’s no need to decide on them this term.
In a state as diverse as Maryland, an arrangement that’s right for one county need not be right for another. Letting Montgomery give this voting method a try won’t have the slightest effect on voters in any other county, nor change how anything is done in races for state or federal office. The Assembly has run out of excuses for stalling. It should act this term to grant Montgomery’s reasonable request.
Walter Olson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Cato Institute fellow and a resident of Frederick County. He served on redistricting commissions under former Gov. Larry Hogan.