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Advocates say ranked choice voting can 'save democracy' in Charlottesville and beyond

A movement to revolutionize the way Virginia — and ultimately the entire nation — elects its leaders has come to Charlottesville.

And advocates told a crowd gathered in the city on Tuesday they think they have the votes to have ranked choice voting adopted in both Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County.

With lofty promises of reducing polarization in American politics, Liz White and Nick Co spoke to a crowd of roughly 25 people at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Tuesday night about installing a new voting system in the Charlottesville area.

“I discovered ranked choice voting, and it captured my heart,” Co, a Navy veteran, told the crowd. “It could save democracy.”

In Co’s telling, after finishing his naval service last year, he was distraught to find how toxic American politics are today.

“Why are Americans fighting other Americans?” he asked.

In researching solutions, Co came across Veterans for Political Innovation, a group that mobilizes U.S. veterans to advocate for ranked choice voting. Co and White claim the system would reduce toxicity in American politics by incentivizing parties to compromise and avoid extremist positions.

Currently, in Albemarle County and Charlottesville, when voters hit the ballot box they select just one candidate for office. Whichever candidate receives the most votes wins.

With ranked choice voting, citizens would be able to rank each of the candidates based on preference, first, second, third and so on. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. The eliminated candidate’s supporters then have their votes allocated elsewhere.

“They still stay in the conversation,” said White, who works with UpVote Virginia, which describes itself as a “democracy reform organization.” “They get to weigh in with their second choice.”

Their votes are given to their second-choice candidate. If still no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the lowest tally is eliminated.

This process continues until one of the candidates obtains a majority of votes.

While it may sound confusing, White insisted it’s an easy experience for voters.

“We all know how to rank. We do it all the time,” she said.

To show the concept in action, White and Co had attendees rank five cookies: Oreo, Chips Ahoy, Fudge Stripes, Milano and Nutter Butter.

After making their selections, voters went to different parts of the room with their cookie allies: Chips Ahoy fans on one side, Oreo fans on another and so forth.

One school-age girl in glasses stood alone as the only Nutter Butter supporter, receiving a round of applause from the crowd for her independence.

Alas, Nutter Butter had the fewest votes and was thus eliminated. She then made her way to join the fans of her second choice: Chips Ahoy, a group that welcomed her with open arms.

This process of elimination and reallocation continued until only two candidates remained standing: Oreo and Milano. Oreo eked out a narrow victory.

Those in attendance seemed to enjoy the experience, and there was limited confusion.

“There were 8-year-old kids in there with ballots, so if they can figure it out so can we,” said Andy Homyk.

Homyk told The Daily Progress he first heard of ranked choice voting years ago and was excited with the recent prospect of it coming to the Charlottesville area.

“It may sound a little crazy to say, but I think it’s got a lot of ability to change the way that our society operates on a larger scale,” he said, adding it would disincentive citizens from exclusively voting down party lines.

Holly Hintz said she learned of ranked choice voting from Homyk, her son-in-law. She told The Daily Progress she joined the Tuesday night info session to learn more and left feeling confident that ranked choice voting could help fix a political system she called “skewed.” Ranked choice voting, she said, would increase engagement among discouraged young people.

“I have three granddaughters who were born this year, and we need to make the world a better place for them,” Hintz said.

In order for ranked choice voting to be enacted in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, it will need support from at least three Charlottesville City Council members and four members of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors. According to Co and White, they have the numbers.

Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook did not immediately return a request for comment from The Daily Progress.

But Donna Price, chair of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, said she believes the board is “generally supportive” of ranked choice voting. However, she said she couldn’t speak to the position of every individual supervisor.

For her own part, Price said she would “likely” vote to approve the new voting system if given the opportunity.

That said, she wrote in an email to The Daily Progress, “until an actual ordinance is put before me, I cannot say how I will vote because details matter and I need the details of a specific ordinance in order to reach a final decision on it.”


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