Question # 12: What would be the costs and timeline of implementing HB1103 legislation authority to rank choice voting for local elections?

Page updated on Mar 18, 2021 at 5:23 PM

Question:

 What would be the costs and timeline of implementing the HB1103 legislation authority to rank choice voting for local elections? Please include information on whether our current voting machines are able to do ranked choice voting and at what capacity in terms of number of candidates that can be ranked, costs of voter education, and how this could be applied to Council and School Board elections. (Vice-Mayor Bennett-Parker)


 Response:

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) or Instant Runoff Voting is a method of tabulation that allows voters to rank their preferred choices. If their first choice cannot win, their vote counts towards their next choice. As explained below, RCV for local elections, presents several interrelated costs and logistical issues.

There are a variety of factors that must be considered when implementing RCV. These factors include:

Voting equipment

The City of Alexandria currently has Hart Intercivic’s Verity voting equipment. This voting equipment supports rank choice voting for single vote winner contests (Vote for 1) but does not support rank choice in multi-vote winner contests (vote for 2 or more), like City Council and School Board.

Based upon an initial conversation with Hart, the company does not have any immediate plans to include rank choice for multi-vote winner contests in future system updates. However, if they did, this update would require testing and certification by both federal and state agencies prior to its use. This process is costly for the vendor and can take years to complete.

Additionally, Virginia is legally required to offer an electronic ballot delivery system (MyVaBallot) for print disabled voters. This system is also offered to overseas and military voters. MyVaBallot is currently not compliant with RCV, but the vendor has indicated they are working on adding this option. However, even if they do, ballots from MyVaBallot and by-mail ballots rejected by the scanner must be hand counted. To generate results for a rank choice voting system, these ballots would have to be combined with ballots scanned through the voting equipment. This would require recreating the hand counted ballots onto ballots that can be scanned through voting equipment. Recreating rank-choice voting contests adds a potential source for human error.

In November 2020, the City of Alexandria had 1,934 ballots hand counted.

Currently, no localities in Virginia use rank choice voting. Arlington County has begun to research the potential implementation of rank choice voting. However, at their February 6, 2021 meeting Scott McGeary Secretary of the Arlington Electoral board indicated “RCV did not seem practical to implement in 2021”. Arlington has single vote winner contests in 3 of every 4 years but once every four years has two Board seats voted upon.

 Virginia Department of Elections Standards 

The Virginia Department of Elections will need to set standards for RCV prior to its implementation. These standards include ballot layout standards, tabulation rules and clarification on how results are to be reported. Additionally, Virginia Department of Elections would need to confirm what equipment is certified for RCV.  It is extremely difficult to determine the technical requirements that are needed until these standards have been set. The Virginia Department of Elections has indicated that guidance documents could be presented to the Virginia State Board of Elections as early as summer 2021.

Reporting of Election Results

Currently all election results are reported using a statewide system. This system currently allows localities to enter one vote total per candidate. For transparency, RCV should show how vote totals change as the lowest ranked candidate is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are reallocated. Showing this information, would require updates to the statewide system. Localities would be responsible for funding changes to the statewide system. §24.2-673.1 Act 2020, c. 1054, cl 2 requires that any costs incurred by the Department of Elections related to changes in technology that are necessary for the implementation of RCV be charged to the localities exercising this option.

Voter outreach

Prior to implementation, a comprehensive and robust education campaign would be needed to educate voters, this would include at least one citywide mailing ($35,000), outreach events and news releases. Additionally, the State Board of Elections may prescribe standards for a voter outreach and public information program.

Costs

Costs for implementing RCV include required updates or replacement of voting equipment, voter outreach, potential changes to the state system and voter outreach. The cost to update the voting equipment and update the statewide system is unknown at this time.

Should the system need to be replaced to accommodate rank choice voting, the entire system would need to be replaced as the different brands are not compatible with one another. For context, the 2017 cost to replace the entire system was $645,254.  This cost included $6,100 per scanner, $5,300 per ballot marking device, and programming software costs of $53,500 but does not include the high speed scanner used for the absentee precinct or the cost of outreach to voters of approximately $35,000.

The 2021 cost to replace each of these machines is likely to have increased.  The Office of Voter Registration and Elections’ current inventory includes 72 scanners, 38 ballot marking devices, one high speed scanner and the proprietary software required for creating ballots and programming the machines. Each voting location must have at minimum one scanner and one ballot marking device. The ballot marking device is required for ADA purposes. The City of Alexandria currently has 30 precincts and up to 4 absentee voting locations during a presidential election. Typically, two scanners and one ballot marking device are sent out per precinct or absentee site.  in addition, the high speed scanner is required to count the by mail ballots.  

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