Few things bring out the worst in people like political campaigns, and Virginians are bracing themselves for harsh elections between now and November, when all 140 seats of the General Assembly will be on the ballot. Next year’s legislature is already shaping up to be drastically different, with approximately one-third of incumbents opting against seeking another term. And with so many pragmatic lawmakers calling it quits, there is a high likelihood the legislature will become more polarized.

In an attempt to curtail the rampant hostility in elections this year, both Republicans and Democrats introduced several bills to expand ranked-choice voting (RCV) from its current use in only party-run primaries and local elections to include presidential and other primaries. While none of these measures advanced during session, RCV could have helped reduce the bitter mudslinging endemic to state legislative races and ought to be considered in the future.

RCV — also known as instant run-offs — allows voters to rank candidates in a crowded field in order of preference, rather than only picking one. During the tabulation process, contenders with the lowest vote tallies are eliminated one at a time and their votes are reallocated to the voter’s next preferred candidate, until one candidate secures a majority of the votes. While there are many benefits to RCV, it particularly helps ensure that candidates don’t focus on a small segment of highly partisan voters. Instead, they have an incentive to appeal to a larger portion of the electorate, which can reduce political dogfights.

There is growing support for adopting RCV in all Virginia primaries. Prominent Virginia political figures, including former Gov. George Allen and Congressman Don Beyer, have endorsed this voting system. And this isn’t some half-baked idea; it’s already proven effective. The Republican Party of Virginia, for example, has used RCV in recent cycles, including the 2021 gubernatorial election.

Leading up to the 2021 statewide races, the perception among election experts was that Virginia had become a solidly blue state. Yet Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares’ victories solidified the commonwealth’s place as a swing state.

What pulled Republicans out of the political wilderness? They nominated electable people thanks to RCV, which helps ensure that more quality candidates with broad support from the electorate clinch the Republican nomination. 

In primaries determined by RCV, the nominees tend to have better name identification and are positioned to secure more support in the general election. That is because RCV fosters support from voters who may not have ranked the eventual nominee as their first choice, but rather the winning candidate might have been their subsequent choice. As a result, voters contribute to a stronger coalition of support for the nominee without worrying about “wasting” a vote.

Most importantly, RCV induces politicians and campaigns to engage with more voters — including those outside of their political base – to secure support as voters’ crucial second choice. In an RCV election, candidates recognize they need support from a majority of the electorate to win, and passionate but small voting blocs just aren’t enough to clinch victory. This helps discourage mudslinging between candidates, as tearing down a voter’s first choice candidate through negativity and dirty politics may make it harder to earn that voter’s second choice.

Some RCV opponents erroneously assert that the system will confuse voters, but research has found otherwise. Rather, voters know how to rank in order of their preference and seem inclined to use RCV. Most importantly, voters who do not wish to rank candidates also retain the ability to simply select only one contender.

Given how well it has performed in party-run primaries and contests for local office, lawmakers should not give up on recently stalled efforts in the General Assembly and work to expand RCV to presidential and state legislative elections.

RCV isn’t a panacea that will bring an end to all negative campaigning, but it has proven itself a useful tool for reducing the bitter, hyper-partisanship in our elections and for nominating appealing, consensus candidates. Ultimately, this change will help Richmond strengthen its political decorum and civility.