How do we change the system and Rank the Vote in DC?

It’s easy as 1, 2, 3:

  1. Introduce the VOICE Act in DC Council

  2. Get a hearing

  3. Pass the bill

We must make sure our leaders respond to the values and interests of the people. That starts with passing the VOICE Act, a ranked voting bill that has been introduced by At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson.

Why should we change the way we vote?

We always yell VOTE, but we rarely talk about How We Vote. The way we currently vote is fundamentally inequitable and unfair. Way too often, candidates win without a majority of support from the people. And when a race has numerous candidates, it is overwhelming for voters to have to navigate the strategic voting required to not “waste your vote” on someone “unelectable”.

The way we vote should reflect reality. Voters and communities in DC are in coalition and solidarity with other groups in a shared struggle for freedom and equity. Under ranked voting, similar candidates can emphasize what unites them and brings them together in solidarity. This breeds a healthier culture of politics.

Technology has allowed us to upgrade so many other systems in our society (healthcare, banking, education, communication, energy). Our existing voting machine infrastructure is already compatible with ranked voting and makes it easy to implement. Our current DC elections generate low turnout and a big sense of disenfranchisement - it’s time we upgrade our voting systems and strengthen our democracy to represent the needs of the people.

What are the extra benefits of ranked voting?

  • Elected leaders can only win with over 50% of the vote - they become accountable to and represent a real majority
  • Reduces the need for strategic voting, especially in crowded races.
  • A healthier culture of politics - similar candidates are incentivized to highlight what unites them and brings them together in solidarity.
  • Voters can vote their favorite (no need to worry about “electability”, “splitting the vote”, “lesser of the evils”, or “wasting their vote”).
  • Voters can vote for outsiders and less “electable” candidates (it will elect stronger Democrats and allow us to be inclusive of independent voters and communities).
  • No more having to pressure candidates to drop out (no more culture of “wait your turn”.

Is ranked voting too confusing? How will this affect seniors and low-information voters?

Ranking is intuitive and natural. We do it every day. The data shows voters of all races, ages, and backgrounds understand how to rank, enjoy the option to rank, and have no increase in confusion about the ballot. In New York City recently, voters of all ages, races, and geographies thought ranked voting was simple.

Our legislation will help the Board of Elections build a fully-funded, accessible, culturally relevant, and multi-language voter education campaign while working with trusted community leaders and organizations to make sure no senior is left behind and all voters feel confident about ranking their vote, regardless of what language they are most familiar with.

We've been ranking in DC for a long time: Councilmembers send out ranked surveys to better understand their community’s priorities, DC asks parents to rank schools in the school placement lottery, and the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) ues ranked preferences to determine a person’s placement on the list for public housing.

Do voters have to rank?

No! Ranking is an option, not required. Voters have the power to rank their preferences if they think other candidates deserve their back-up choices.

How will this affect turnout in DC?

In some places that implemented ranked voting, turnout increased immensely. A 2020 study by Eamon McGinn of the University of Technology Sydney finds that ranked choice voting caused a 9.6 percentage point increase in turnout in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. A survey of the data shows that RCV does not adversely affect turnout compared to our current system.

We hope that ranked voting will be paired with meaningful voter engagement and education programs that encourage people to look deeper at why we vote, what else we can do, how the system works, and how our vote can have more power.

How will we educate our diverse communities about this change?

Rank the Vote DC has a comprehensive, ward-specific education plan to reach every voter in all 8 Wards. Education comes from many different approaches and will be done in coordination with the Attorney General’s office, various Councilmember offices, grassroots and civic education groups, and the Board of Election. We will reach DC voters safely (following CDC guidelines) and meet where they are. Here is just some of the ways we are doing ranked voting education:

  • Continuous teach-ins and workshops for RCV education
  • Train ambassadors and people in solidarity to advocate in their respective wards and communities
  • Safely tabling at laundromats, bus stops, barber shops, grocery stores, farmers markets, recreation centers, voting locations, and other places where people spend time either standing in line or hanging out - during and after the pandemic
  • Go-go events where attendees can rank options for the next songs
  • Canvassing at public events and festivals
  • Parks and other public spaces
  • Collaborating with other orgs at their meetings and events
  • Knocking on every door and engaging with people face-to-face about what they want out of the system and what are the different ways to change it
  • Outreach to all stakeholders

How does this impact candidates of color and women running for office?

Under ranked voting, the data shows that more women of color run for office and that more people of color win their races. Luckily, DC Council is already majority Black and majority women. Ranking creates political campaign environments where multiple candidates from the same community of color can run without worry of spoiling the election, splitting the vote, or being told to drop out.

For more research on women's representation with Ranked Voting, click here.

Some data from a 2016 holistic study of “minority representation” in the Bay Area: In cities that adopted RCV, 24% more candidates of color won elections compared to the seven control cities in the region that did not adopt RCV and saw only a 12% increase in victories for candidates of color over the same time period. Cities that adopted RCV had 7% more female candidates of color run for office, while cities that did not adopt RCV stayed the same. Similarly, female candidates of color won 7% more of the elections held in cities with RCV, whereas cities without RCV saw a decrease in the percentage of winning female candidates of color over the same period.

For more data on ranked voting and representation for communities of color, click here.

How does this impact communities of color in DC?

To predict the equity impacts of ranked voting, we can look at historical data of other locations that have ranked the vote and also think about the incentives of a ranked voting system. The data shows that more women and people of color are elected (as we show in the previous answer) and it does not increase disparities in turnout among different communities. And the incentives under a ranked system are for candidates to reach new DC voters and be a top choice for the majority of the people. We think that this should be the bare minimum in a truly meaningful democracy.

No one can claim to know exactly how elections will play out under our current system vs. a ranked system. There is no guarantee that our current system or a ranked system will elect more leaders who are Black, Latino/a, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, or any other community/identity. What we can guarantee is that candidates will be able to run a different style of campaigning under ranked voting. Diverse candidates will feel more confident to run knowing they wouldn’t be “spoilers'' for similar candidates. Crowded DC Council races might be less ugly and incentivize more young leaders to lead while educating and engaging their communities.

Don't we already have a DC Council that is majority women and majority Black?

Yes - and all the new women and Black Councilmembers support Rank the Vote DC! Just because we’ve had diversity on the Council in the past, doesn’t mean we should think our system will always support these voices in the future. We have to think long term about what kind of democracy we want to give to the next generation.

Ranked voting nourishes our history and culture while preparing and strengthening our system for an uncertain future. It will let historically marginalized people stay in solidarity with one another, while still prioritizing electing folks from their own community.

Although we have diversity in our Council, we’ve never elected a Latino/a Councilmember, despite making up 11% of our population. And there are currently no LGBTQ+ Councilmembers. This is not to say that with ranked voting, we’d suddenly have a perfectly representative Council. But ranking the vote allows people to prioritize electing candidates who best represent their communities, while still being able to put their back-up choices for more “electable” candidates who would also do a good job representing them.

What is the data that says this will reduce negative and toxic campaigning?

There are many ways to measure the effectiveness of ranked voting reducing toxicity. Let’s look at some data:

  • A 2020 Artificial Intelligence analysis of political debate word usage found that for ranked choice voting races, civility was improved with candidates substituting negative or neutral words for positive words.
  • Eagleton Poll provides in-depth analyses on socio-economic and demographic groups in the Bay Area. A key finding was virtually every demographic group that was studied – including low-income respondents, college graduates, Latinos, African-Americans, women, Independents and unmarried people – reported less negativity in RCV cities than in plurality cities.
  • A 2018 exit poll of Santa Fe voters found that 67% of respondents believed the tone of their first mayoral election with RCV was more positive than prior mayoral elections. Only 3% of respondents said it was more negative.

Candidates are less incentivized to attack each other, and encouraged to say, “We agree about these issues! If you like that other candidate, you should rank me second.”

Will the Board of Elections be able to pull this off?

Yes! The BOE accomplished Vote By Mail in a few months. The BOE will have 2 years to educate and prepare for ranked voting in 2024 with our grassroots coalition to support them! Our priorities as a coalition are community outreach and education. With guidance and collaboration from the movement we are building, we are confident the DCBOE will do an equitable and successful voter education campaign - reaching every DC community.

We will continue to learn best practices and education guidelines developed in other diverse cities like New York City, Santa Fe, Oakland, Minneapolis, Takoma Park, and Eastpointe, MI.

Will ranking cost more than our current system?

No! Our current voting technology in DC (The DS200 and ExpressVote from Election Systems and Software) is ranked voting compatible. It’s possible DC will need a software upgrade, but that is simple enough to get from the voting system vendor. There are multiple different software options that can perform this function, some available for free (the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center) and some for a fee. This equipment has been used for RCV elections across the country - in Maine and Minneapolis and in many other cities. New York City will be using the same exact equipment as DC to run their RCV elections this year.

How would the Board of Elections count ranked ballots?

Votes are counted automatically with voting software. Counting votes in RCV means 1) being able to scan in ballots and 2) being able to count ranked ballots round-by-round, if necessary. The equipment in DC can already scan RCV ballots. Once ballots get scanned in you then need to be able to run the round by round count. The count works by taking a spreadsheet with every voter’s rankings and running it through a transparent counting software. Producing results this way takes only a few seconds per contest.

For a refresher on how the voting software counts votes: If a candidate has over 50% of first-choice votes, they win and the election is over. If there is no majority winner, there is an “instant runoff” without having to run a new election. The least popular candidate is removed, and voters who ranked that candidate first will have their votes count for their second choice. This process continues until a candidate wins with more than half of the votes - a real majority.

Who will win under a ranked system?

The candidate who reaches a real majority of voters’ top choices wins. It’s up to DC voters and the candidates who step up to lead. It does not benefit or harm any party or ideology.

The incentives under a ranked system are for candidates to increase turnout. The data shows that more women and people of color are usually elected. Candidates will have to reach voters beyond their base to be a top choice for the majority of the people. We think that this should be the bare minimum in a truly meaningful democracy.

It is impossible to know exactly how past election outcomes would’ve changed with a different system. What we do know is that under a ranked system, there is no need to speculate about “electability”, worry about “spoiling” elections, or strategically vote. Voters can vote their values despite what anyone else thinks.

Will people rank their vote correctly?

We know from studies that voters are just as capable of marking ranked ballots as they are of marking non-ranked ballots. In both Minneapolis and Santa Fe, more than 99.9% of ballots were filled correctly. As with any ballot, voters have the easiest time using RCV ballots when they are well designed. Best practices have been developed for RCV ballot design so it’s easy to vote. Here’s a sample ballot image.

Will this make people more or less likely to strategically vote or "bullet vote"?

People bullet vote for two reasons: 1) The voter is unaware they can vote for more than one person in the At-Large race, or 2) the voter is strategically voting.

  1. Voters who are unaware they can vote for more than one person will have clarity in a ranked system because the design of the ballot is inherent to allowing voters more than one option. With a ranked ballot, it is clear that you will have the power to rank your preferences because of the ballot design.

  2. Ranked voting eliminates the need to strategically vote because your 2nd and 3rd choices do not hurt your first choice. Voters are encouraged to vote their favorite first without pressure from other people to consolidate behind just one person.

How will ranked voting work for our At-Large Councilmember races where 2 folks are elected in one election?

In our At-Large race voters elect 2 candidates. The voting process is the same: voters have the power to rank their preferences. This eliminates the current problem (called bullet voting) where some voters only use one of their two votes in an At-Large race. A ranked voting system simplifies this process, making voting and ballot design the same in every race.

To elect more than one person in a ranked election is called proportional or multi-winner ranked voting. This is the most equitable way to vote, making sure that the winners most accurately reflect the people. In a two-winner election like our At-Large DC Councilmember race, winners still have to win with a majority. The goal is to have fair and proportional representation while eliminating strategic voting.

In a two-seat at-large ranked election, 66%+ of voters will select the two winners of the election, guaranteed. In the last unranked election, the two winners got only 40.73% of the vote combined even though they are supposed to represent the whole city. With proportional ranked voting, we would make sure the people we elect represent at least 66% of the city. Ultimately, multi-winner ranked voting does a better job of making sure our votes count and letting more people choose our elected leaders.

What is proportional ranked voting?

Proportional ranked voting, also called multi-winner ranked voting, is used for races where there is more than one seat to vote for, like DC’s At-Large Councilmember races with 2 winners. It is a step towards proportional representation. Proportional representation means communities or parties are represented equitably in the legislature: the people who make the rules and laws look like the people they represent.

For the voter, the process of voting is the same for every race: you have the power to rank your preferences.

To ensure an equitable outcome, there is one extra step in the calculation process to determine who wins the second seat. Once a candidate reaches a majority (33% for a 2-seat race), they are elected to the first seat. Their surplus votes beyond the majority are transferred to their voters’ second choices - making our votes go as far as possible and making the outcome reflect the choices of most of the voters. The process continues until another candidate reaches a majority and wins the second seat. This extra step ensures stronger representation: the winners actually represent the majority of voters.

Will this help or hurt the Democratic Party?

Ranked voting will help stronger Democrats emerge from the primaries because, in a ranked system, a winner has to get a majority of the votes. It balances our voting system and ensures a fair outcome.

Ranked voting does not benefit or harm any particular ideology or party. It also lets our largely Democratic community in DC be inclusive of independent voters and communities.

What are the top concerns about Ranking the Vote in DC?

We’ve heard a few concerns emerge from our education efforts. Our intention is to list the concerns and address them. If you have another concern, please email us at rankthevotedc@gmail.com and we’ll get back to you!

Will this disenfranchise immigrants, seniors, low-information voters, and voters of color?

No, ranked voting will not disenfranchise anyone. It actually gives voters more power to have their voices heard through their votes. Any update to our voting requires a robust education program for DC voters. Many community-based organizations like our coalition are already doing the work to make sure voters know what to expect when they head to the polls. Some critics have suggested that immigrants and voters of color won’t be able to understand RCV, and that’s incorrect -- with studies showing no difference in understanding of RCV between whites and people of color -- not to mention insulting: If immigrants can handle the challenges they face on a daily basis, like operating in their second or third language, navigating government bureaucracies, or even learning to vote the traditional way in their non-native country, we are confident that they will be able to rank their preferences in an RCV election, just like everyone else. Ranked voting will empower communities of color to vote freely for candidates who are dedicated to racial equity, cultural preservation, housing justice, and community safety without worrying about strategic voting or splitting the vote.

Can the Board of Elections implement ranked voting?

There are best practices for implementing ranked voting successfully. We intend to work with the BOE and include all stakeholders in the movement. That is why we are building a grassroots coalition to support and guide the transition in our city.

Why rank the vote? Aren’t people worrying about the basics like making rent and feeding their families?

Who we elect as leaders determines our livelihoods from how the budget is allocated to who has access to resources. One of the reasons we have so many societal issues is because, under our current system, leaders do not have to be responsive to the needs of the majority of the people. Ranked voting ensures a fair and majority election outcome to equitably represent voters and address the needs of their communities. Rank the Vote DC coalition is also working in solidarity with Mutual Aids and community-focused groups because we believe systemic change happens by reforming democracy and meeting people’s basic needs.

What about all the other things we need to change about our elections? Like increasing turnout, enfranchising returned citizens, independent redistricting, lowering the voting age, creating an open or blanket primary system, expanding DC Council, and more?

We believe ranking the vote is just a step in strengthening our democracy. Ranked voting creates a fairer system that begins a conversation about how power works in our democracy and our city. Especially as we move closer to DC Statehood, we need to reevaluate the ways our system works and how to make our democracy deeply meaningful and delicious.

Why RCV versus another voting system?

There is no perfect voting system, and ranked voting is no different. Some prefer other systems like proportional representation, approval voting, or STAR voting. But each has its own disadvantages and advantages. We chose RCV because it is the most well-tested system in the US, it balances well between being fair and easy to understand, and it most significantly eliminates strategic voting.

Will this make gentrification worse?

Some long-time DC residents worry that change to our system may result in inequitable outcomes in a city that continues to feel the pain of economic and racial disparities, as well as cultural displacement and gentrification. We hear this concern and are proactively building a local grassroots coalition inclusive of racial, geographic, generational, and ideological differences. Ranked voting will empower communities of color to vote freely for candidates who are dedicated to racial equity, cultural preservation, housing justice, and community safety without worrying about strategic voting or splitting the vote.