By Eric Wilson
In between working on two statewide campaigns in Virginia, I spent 10 weeks in Australia helping the right-of-center Coalition with its 2016 federal elections. That coalition has won all three national elections in Australia since 2013.
Five years later, I couldn’t have imagined that experience would be as relevant as it is today right back here in Virginia.
For the May 8th Unassembled Convention, the Republican Party of Virginia will be using an instant runoff voting system known as ranked choice voting (RCV). This method of voting has been used since 1918 in thousands of Australian elections. It’s recommended in leading parliamentary guides like Robert’s Rules of Order when in-person voting at a convention is not possible which is why the Republican Party of Virginia last year used RCV in electing our chair and in several key congressional district convention votes.
While the method is new for many fellow Virginia Republicans, I’d like to share some lessons I’ve learned having now been involved in three Australian elections under the ranked choice voting system. For more details on the basics of this method, this from Lynchburg GOP is a helpful primer.
Voters Get To Say More
With typical voting methods, voters only get to “say” one thing with their vote – “this candidate is my preference.” But with ranked choice voting, you can express more with your vote. Your first choice gets your vote, but if that candidate is in last place and defeated, your voice can still count. Now your ballot counts for your second choice. No “vote splitting” and no reason not to rank backup choices to your first choice.
As Virginia Republicans know far too well, a third party candidate can easily play spoiler in methods that don’t provide for runoffs. With the ranked choice voting method we’re using for this year’s convention, grassroots conservatives get more say to ensure we nominate a consensus candidate.
Candidates Run Kinder Campaigns
Kinder is of course relative in politics, but because earning first, second, and third-choice rankings is essential to victory in a ranked choice contest, there is a clear mandate for candidates to appeal to their opponents’ supporters.
When votes are on the line, the candidates have to do more than just pay lip service to “unity.”
Just as often seen at a convention, it is okay and to be expected for candidates to openly support each other and candidates are wise to ask to be your second choice if you support someone else as a top choice. Delegate Kirk Cox’s recent video asking to be delegates’ second choice, we see this strategy on display.
A candidate’s supporters should rank the other candidates honestly. Ranking a candidate second never hurts the chances of your top choice. Even if your honest second choice may be the strongest opponent for your top choice, it is sensible to rank that candidate second. Even if your honest first choice is unlikely to win, it is fine to rank that candidate first.
Results Take Longer
In the United States, we’ve become accustomed to learning who the winner of an election is on election night. As we learned in 2020, that isn’t guaranteed and final. Official counts may take weeks to complete.
In Virginia this year (as they’ve done for decades in Australia) ballots will be counted by hand. This will take longer, but goes a long way to instilling trust in the process and reaching an accurate result.
I’m excited to see ranked choice voting put to the test in Virginia. Republicans are leading the way on election security and with this method, we’re leading the way on innovations in elections. Our founding fathers envisioned the states as the laboratories of democracy and Virginia conservatives are hard at work.
Eric Wilson is a political technologist driving innovation and digital transformation. He’s a veteran of numerous campaigns, having led Marco Rubio’s digital team during his 2016 campaign for president, and served as digital director of Ed Gillespie’s campaign for Virginia Governor in 2017 and US Senate in 2014. He lives in Northern Virginia.