While no such discussion on this topic is likely to occur among Carroll County’s delegation to Annapolis this year, they may want to keep an eye on legislation proposed by Montgomery County lawmakers that would allow ranked choice voting in primary and general elections for local races there.
The bill, which received unanimous approval from the all-Democrat Montgomery County delegation, will have a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday. It won’t affect any other jurisdictions in the state, but other counties — particularly those where one party has political dominance, like Carroll County — might want to take a closer look.
You’ve probably heard that, when it comes to local races, the primary election is the “real” election in Carroll. Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-1 among registered voters here, and often, the winner of the county’s Republican primary in local races wins in a landslide against their Democratic opponent or is unopposed in the general election.
Switching to ranked choice voting wouldn’t change the reality that, for most local races, the outcome of the general election is largely decided months beforehand. (Unlike a switch to nonpartisan races for local offices, which we also support.) But in crowded primary fields, it would prevent the winners emerging with just a small percentage of the vote.
For context, in the most recent primary election in 2018, Commissioners Eric Bouchat (44.1 percent) and Ed Rothstein (45.6 percent) won less than 50 percent of the vote in their respective districts, both of which had four Republican candidates seeking the party’s nomination. In 2014, in a crowded five-candidate field, Commissioner Dennis Frazier won the District 3 Republican primary with just 34 percent of the vote.
And going back to 2010, the first primary of five commissioners elected by district in Carroll County, three of the five eventual commissioners — Robin Barlett Frazier, Haven Shoemaker and Richard Rothschild — won their primaries with less than 42 percent of the vote.
In each of those cases, that means for the majority of voters in those districts voted for someone other than the eventual winners.
Ranked choice voting, sometimes called “instant runoff,” means voters would not only cast a ballot for their top choice, but empowers voters to rank candidates from favorite to least favorite. If one candidate receives an outright majority of more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she wins. However, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated and voters who liked that candidate best will have their ballots counted for their second choice. The process repeats with last-place candidates being eliminated until one candidate reaches a majority of the votes.
There is no telling if a ranked choice option might’ve changed the outcomes of recent local elections here in Carroll, but can help to elect candidates that reflect the full spectrum of voters. It can also influence how candidates interact with constituents leading up to the election and how they govern once elected, forcing them to find more common ground rather than pandering only to their base.
Ranked choice discourages negative campaigning and mudslinging. Candidates do better when they reach out to as many potential voters as possible, even those who may support their opponents. A Rutgers University poll of seven cities with ranked choice found voters reported friendlier campaigns. It also can allow more candidates to compete. Someone may choose not to run for fear of splitting the vote. With ranked choice, that’s not a concern, and can give the people more choices.
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Carroll County might not be ready for such a drastic change in how voting is done, but ranked choice is catching on across the country, and presuming it becomes law in Montgomery County soon enough, we suspect other Maryland jurisdictions will seek to us ranked choice in the future once they see it in action. Carroll’s lawmakers — and more importantly, its voters — should pay close attention and see if it’s something to be considered here, too.