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How to count votes in multi-representative races, and a bit on Ranked Choice Voting

How to count votes in multi-representative races, and a bit on Ranked Choice Voting

Reporting vote percentages in multi-representative races can be tricky. If you compute a candidate’s vote percentage relative to the number of votes cast, you get a really misleading figure. A small point: but there’s a better way.

It’s important to understand vote percentages as we evaluate Ranked Choice Voting, a system that allows voters to rank as multiple candidates in order of preference. RCV, currently before Montgomery County’s Maryland state legislative delegation as bill MC 29-19, ensures that an elected candidate was chosen by a majority of voters and not just a plurality.

Let’s look at the 2018 Maryland Democratic primary. Thirty-three candidates ran for four at-large Montgomery County Council seats. (I was one of them.) Each voter could choose up to four candidates.

At the December 17 delegation hearing on MC 29-19, an individual offered the primary winners’ vote percentages in his supporting testimony. The numbers he offered are deceptive because each voter could vote for up to four candidates, and in fact 437,616 votes were cast, by 130,957 Democratic voters, an average of 3.34 votes per ballot. So while the top vote-getter, Hans Riemer, won 12.21% of the vote – seemingly far, far from a majority – he also won 41% of the voters, that is, not so far off. The picture with conventional voting isn’t quite so skewed as this testimony suggested!

It’s tempting to decry that the #4 vote-getter / #4 nominee, Gabe Albornoz, won only 7.38% of the vote, but that would be highly misleading. Gabe won 25% of the voters, that is, he was chosen on 25% of the ballots.

And the gap between Gabe and the #5 vote-getter, Marilyn Balcombe, who won 6.26% of the vote, was not a mere 1.12 percentage points. Based on the number of ballots, it was a 3x wider 3.76 percentage points. Marilyn was chosen on 20.9% of the ballots cast. Not bad!

It’s hard to say how RCV would have affected the 2018 at-large primary outcome. With RCV, as lower vote-getters are eliminated, lower-ranked choices on ballots that listed them are counted. Maybe the additional votes would have boosted Marilyn or another candidate into the top four. It’s hard to say.

Much more likely RCV would have changed the outcome in the other 2018 Democratic primary contests, in Montgomery County races and many state legislative races, for instance in District 16, where only 12 votes separated the #3 (winning) and #4 (runner-up) candidates for the district’s three seats in the Maryland House of Delegates. MC 29-19 only covers Montgomery County races, however, and not Maryland state races. I support it and hope it will pass – if you agree, please tell your state legislators – and that the State of Maryland will embrace Ranked Choice Voting in time for the 2022 primaries.

RCV democratizes elections by empowering minority candidates, including in multi-representative races. RCV establishes a new way to count votes, so numbers are critical in any objective evaluation. Just remember to measure percentages relative to the number of ballots cast. A small point, but significant in understanding multi-rep race outcomes.

Nancy Floreen split the Republican vote, not the Democratic!, and three other 2018 lessons learned

Nancy Floreen split the Republican vote, not the Democratic!, and three other 2018 lessons learned

The 2018 election was good for the Democrats nationally although Maryland results were pretty much status quo. My own focus is local however, on Montgomery County, so let’s look at the numbers here in Maryland’s largest county. I draw four conclusions…

Conclusion #1: County executive candidate Nancy Floreen split the Republican vote, not the Democratic!

This year, Democrat Marc Elrich won 64.3% of the vote (preliminary result) to Independent Nancy Floreen’s 19.2% and Republican Robin Ficker’s 16.4%.

Contrast with 2014, when incumbent Democrat Ike Leggett won a third term as county executive with 65.3% of the vote to Republican Jim Shalleck’s 34.2%.

This year, the non-Democrats’ votes, Floreen’s and Ficker’s, total 35.6%. Compare to Republican Shalleck’s 34.2% in 2014. The difference is a mere 1.2 points. Trump-era Democrats’ stayed true to their party, and Nancy Floreen split the Republican vote, not the Democratic!

Conclusion #2: Public finance works, and woe betide a candidate who raises narrowly.

Marc Elrich maxed out on public-finance matching funds, receiving $750,000 in public money for the primary and $750,000 for the general election, given support from over 3,600 donors who contributed $150 or less. Nancy Floreen’s campaign had 685 donors, less than one-fifth Elrich’s count.

It’s said that “yard signs don’t vote,” but donors do, and given their campaign equity, they tell their friends about their candidate. A public-finance candidate must build a substantial donor-voter base in order to receive matching funds. To max out, the candidate must go wide by raising from diverse geographic, cultural, and age demographics and interests.

Yet Floreen stayed narrow. Montgomery Neighbors PAC found that “87.5% of the total funds raised in support of Nancy Floreen’s campaign,” direct to her campaign and to the County Above Party Super PAC, “comes from one industry – land developers, financiers, builders, apartment managers, service providers, and commercial and residential real estate agents.”

Public finance worked by providing Elrich both the funds he needed to win and an incentive to go wide. Floreen stayed narrow and lost.

Conclusion #3: Montgomery County voted county, party, and PRESENCE, to the detriment of Ben Jealous.

Both Marc Elrich and Nancy Floreen are long-time local electeds with oversize personalities. They have equal presence. It’s party and positioning that explain Elrich’s victory over Floreen. The perception that Elrich cares about everyday people contrasts with Floreen’s perceived pro-developer bias.

Why didn’t Democrats similarly back Ben Jealous? He and Elrich are cut from the same progressive cloth, yet in Democrat-dominated Montgomery County, Jealous scored only 54.5%, lagging Elrich by 10.8 points.

Jealous’s Maryland association was simply too weak. He lacked local presence, coming across as a movement guy more than as someone you’d look to craft a workable state budget. His scant state voting record didn’t help, and his involvement in the Maryland marriage-equality fight was peripheral. So most Marylanders were introduced to Jealous as a Bernie guy, which gets you only so far. Bernie Sanders did show up for his 2016 state campaign chair, saying “I am proud to be here because Ben is one of those leaders who is not going to be nibbling around the edges, but understands we have got to transform the economic and political life of this country.”

I suspect that most Marylanders — the state overall voted 56% for Hogan and 43% for Jealous — wanted a first-term governor, if Jealous, who they could be confident would focus on the state first. Fine for incumbent Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh to spend time going after Donald Trump. Frosh is a Montgomery County native who has served the state well, and he earned 77.8% of the county’s vote this year. Going back to 2014, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown was well known as then-Lieutenant Governor and won in Montgomery County over Hogan 61.7% to 36.9%. Both Frosh and Brown in 2014 possessed the presence that Jealous lacked, the voter’s sense that the candidate is in it for the long haul for us.

Conclusion #4: The 2022 election just became a bit less interesting.

Progressive Marc Elrich earned only one percentage point fewer votes than centrist incumbent Ike Leggett did in 2014. This fact should give pause to anyone thinking of challenging Elrich from the center in the 2022 Democratic primary, whether that person is a business figure (David Blair’s positioning in this year’s primary) or a known political quantity, say a term-limited councilmember. Then again, one of those latter figures could make a compelling 2022 candidate for statewide office. Let the positioning begin!

Let’s add two Montgomery County district council seats

Let’s add two Montgomery County district council seats

Sharing testimony that I submitted:

Montgomery County Charter Review Commission
July 29, 2017

Chair Bessel and Commission members:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on possible changes to council representation.

The current council-representation arrangement, with a mix of district seats and at-large seats, ensures both locally-focused representation and the election of councilmembers who answer to all the county’s voters. That’s good. The county should continue to have both at-large and district council seats.

The minutes of the May 10, 2017 commission meeting record, “Commissioners discussed different models for the composition of the Council, including all district (no at-large) membership, fewer at-large members than currently, and all district members elected by countywide vote.”

Should district members be elected by countywide vote? I see little appeal in that approach and won’t address it beyond saying that if geographic disparities are feared now, this scheme would magnify them. In the 2014 Democratic primary, 7,626 District 2 votes were cast for a county-executive candidate, and 19,450 votes in District 1.

Should the number of at-large seats be reduced? Again no, at least not because three of four at-large council seats are held by residents of one corner of the county. This current situation is the result of voter choice within a democratic and transparent process. It is a temporary situation that does not reflect an historic pattern ( and will end on December 3, 2018.

I would counter calls for reduction in the number of at-large seats with the argument that each Montgomery County voter is advantaged by being represented by multiple at-large councilmembers in addition to that person’s district member.

By contrast, I see underrepresentation issues that the county can and should address. Please consider two steps:

1) Addition of two district council seats, to bring the number of district seats to seven. Hold the number of at-large seats at four. Currently each council district has over 200,000 residents. Adding two districts will reduce this number to under 150,000, presumably boosting district councilmember responsiveness.

2) Institution of Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV), also known as Instant-Runoff Voting, for county offices. I do not see that the Maryland Constitution or code would preclude Montgomery County’s counting votes however it wishes, so long as the counting approach stands up to judicial scrutiny, which RCV would and has. RCV would magnify minority voices in our majority-minority county, per advocacy by FairVote ( and other organizations. (The commission might consider other “fair representation” approaches described by FairVote.)

I would like to see Montgomery County pursue steps that mimic Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), to address registration disparities, although that investigation would be outside the purview of the Charter Review Commission.

Thank you for considering this comment.


Seth Grimes