Credit: By Charlie Wright

Legislation that would give Montgomery County voters additional flexibility in picking candidates in local races through a method known as “ranked choice” voting drew support at a Monday night hearing.

State Sen. Cheryl Kagan and Del. Eric Luedtke have proposed a bill to be considered in the state legislature that would allow the County Council to adopt ranked choice, also known as “multiple-winner systems” that are being used in more state and local elections nationwide.

“Ranked choice voting is simple and intuitive,” said Kagan, a Democrat who represents District 17, which includes Rockville and Gaithersburg. “We all do it every day.”

“You avoid what we have under the current system, where a large multi-member race with many candidates you can have candidates who win with 10 percent of the vote, support from 12 percent of the electorate which, in my opinion, is fundamentally undemocratic,” said Luedtke, a Democrat who represents Burtonsville, Olney and Damascus neighborhoods in District 14.

More than a dozen residents and community leaders testified in support of the bill, with none speaking against it.

Luedtke has said an alternative voting system will be important in future county races with crowded ballots, such as this year’s primary election when 33 Democrats ran for four seats in the County Council at-large race.

Todd Eberly, an associate professor of Political Science and Public Policy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said the system is intended to secure a majority winner.

Voters are given the option of filling in an ordered list of candidates instead of selecting a single candidate. If none of the choices earn a majority of the votes, the last-place candidate is removed from the count and the second-place option is elevated on those ballots. The count is run again following the reallocation of votes until one candidate earns a majority, Eberly explained.

The legislation is “one part of what we need to do to create a more fair and reflective democracy,” said Michelle Whittaker, one of the co-leaders of legislative strategy at Ranked Choice Voting for Maryland.

The statewide advocacy group has partnered with Common Cause Maryland, the League of Women Voters and Our Revolution Montgomery County to support the legislation.

Whittaker said the joint effort is intended to bring a better understanding of alternative voting methods.

The bill would also include the option for approval voting, which allows voters to select any number of candidates and awards victory to the most-approved, an addition from last year’s legislation that included solely ranked choice.

The electoral reform group FairVote reported ranked choice voting systems, or “multi-winner systems,” are used in 11 state legislatures and hundreds of cities.

Yet, the system isn’t without inadequacies, Eberly said.

“There’s no indication that it actually does [benefit voters],” Eberly said. “Advocates for it see it as this beautiful cure-all, that people wouldn’t waste their vote, they would feel more comfortable voting for third parties, there would never be a plurality winner. Ranked choice voting comes with its own set of flaws that our plurality system has.”

The chief concern is “exhaustion,” according to a review of four California elections using ranked choice voting by Craig Burnett and Vladimir Kogan published in the 2014 edition of Electoral Studies.

The study found the winner in all four elections failed to earn a majority of the total votes cast, due to the elimination of ballots that voted for the least-popular candidate, and only that candidate. Voters are not required to select multiple options, so ballots with only one candidate are simply removed if that selection falls out of the running.

Burnett and Kogan found that the system “is not a magic cure-all to popular complaints about the quality of local democracy, as is true for every electoral method available. While the method has the potential to reduce administrative costs for local governments, it also increases the difficulty of the task facing voters.”