Luedtke Hopes To Change Voting Method in Montgomery County
State delegate will reintroduce ranked choice voting bill during the 2019 legislative session
State Del. Eric Luedtke think it’s time to change the way voters elect the Montgomery County executive and members of the County Council.
Luedtke, a Democrat who represents the upcounty areas of Burtonsville, Olney and Damascus, is co-sponsoring a bill in the 2019 legislative session along with State Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Rockville/Gaithersburg) that would give the council the authority to implement an alternative voting method such as “ranked choice or “approval” voting. Because the state controls how elections are administered, the legislature must first give counties the authority to make changes to their elections processes, Luedtke said. The council would ultimately choose the specific method of voting to be administered.
In a ranked choice system, voters mark their ballots by designating which candidate they would prefer as their “first” choice, and then continuing to rank the other candidates in order of preference. Whichever candidate receives more than 50 percent of “first choices” wins. In the event that no candidate receives a majority, the “first choice” votes of the candidate who finished last are discarded, and the “second choice” votes of the voters who chose the losing candidate are counted instead. The process repeats until a candidate receives a majority of votes. Voters in Maine began using the ranked choice system this year after they passed a ballot measure in 2016 that would change the voting process, according to The New York Times. The city of Takoma Park also uses a ranked choice system in local races.
In an approval system, residents vote for as many candidates as they want, and the candidate with the highest total wins. Fargo, North Dakota, voters passed a ballot initiative Nov. 6 to implement this system in local elections, according to Vox.
An alternative voting system, Luedtke said, will be important in future county races in the event that there are more elections with a crowded ballot, such as this year’s primary election when 33 Democrats ran for four seats in the council at-large race.
“That County Council election really makes the case for why ranked choice voting is a good idea,” he said.
Montgomery County residents currently vote for only as many candidates as there are seats in each race. Usually that means they only choose one candidate, but voters can vote for multiple candidates if there are multiple seats. In the case of this year’s Democratic primary, residents were allowed to vote for four at-large council candidates out of a field of 33.
In an interview Tuesday, council President Hans Riemer said he would support a ranked choice or approval voting system because those voting methods do a better job of reflecting the true interests of voters.
“At times you can get a problem where people feel like they don’t want to vote with their true choice, and they engage in strategic voting. And they engage in strategic voting because they’re afraid their true choice will not have a chance to win and they’re trying to figure out how to vote strategically. It’s a bad system for voters,” he said.
Maryland’s legislative session begins Jan. 9. Luedtke said the Montgomery County delegation also introduced a version of this bill into the House of Delegates last year but the bill ultimately didn’t make it out of committee. He thinks the bill has a better chance to pass this year because of recent events.
“Given what happened in the council race … I think that is an obvious justification. We’ve got better evidence that it’s been successful in the Maine election,” he said.
Asked if it seemed undemocratic to have a “first choice” vote be discounted in the event that a voter’s “first choice” candidate loses, Luedtke replied that under the current system, residents “waste” votes by casting their ballot for a losing candidate, but in a ranked choice system, that problem would be eliminated.
“It’s a shift in how voters think going into an election. You now have to not only say, ‘This is my favorite candidate, but this is my second and third favorite candidate,’ ” he said.
Luedtke added he expects other lawmakers may introduce a bill that would similarly allow all other counties to change their elections process.
Luedtke is sponsoring another election reform bill in the upcoming session that would require county executive and council candidates to submit a petition to the Montgomery County Board of Elections with a certified number of signatures of registered voters in order to be placed on the ballot. County executive candidates would need to collect 1,000 signatures, at-large council candidates would need 500 signatures and council candidates running in a specific district would need 250.
“What it’ll do is prevent people who aren’t seriously committed to running a campaign from getting on the ballot,” he said.
Luedtke said this would be another solution to reducing the ballot crowding, as was the case in the council at-large Democratic primary.
“I had a lot of voters coming out of early voting sites in the spring who were just confused. We know that a crowded ballot can turn off voters, and I wanted to suggest a potential solution to that,” he said.
Currently, candidates only need to file a certificate of candidacy and a financial disclosure form and to pay a filing fee to appear on the ballot. The petition requirement, Luedtke said, will force candidates to interact with the public when they campaign.
“Instead of starting your campaign by paying $50, you start by going door to door, or to Giants [grocery stores] and Metro stations,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org