A better way to elect the Howard County Board of Education

15 minute read

Ho. Co. 16-23

The beginning of Ho.Co. 16-23, legislation proposed by Delegates Chao Wu and Jen Terrasa to authorize the use of ranked choice voting in Howard County Board of Education elections.

tl;dr: Howard County parents and other voters shouldn’t have the ability to elect Board of Education members taken away from them. Instead they deserve a way to vote for the Board of Education that truly reflects their preferences, namely ranked choice voting.

How we got here, Board of Education edition

Prior to 2020 the Howard County Board of Education was elected at large, with three members elected during presidential election years and four members during gubernatorial election years. The primary election was used as a way to winnow down the number of candidates to be voted on in the general election.

2018 was the last election in which the traditional method was used: there were thirteen Board of Education candidates in the primary, of whom voters could vote for four. The top eight candidates advanced to the general election, at which again voters could vote for four. The top four were elected to the board.

For the 2020 election year the system was changed to have five members of the Board of Education to be elected by district (using the Howard County Council districts) and two members elected at-large in alternate election years.

In the 2020 primary election voters could vote for one candidate in their district. The top two candidates in each district advanced to the general election, at which voters again voted for one candidate. The top candidate in each district was elected to the board.

The at-large members were elected in the 2022 election year. In the 2022 primary election voters could vote for up to two at-large candidates in their district. The top four at-large candidates advanced to the general election, at which voters again voted for up to two candidates. The top two candidates were elected to the board.

A threat to stop voters from electing two board members

Now a new proposal is on the table: to take away the ability of Howard County voters to elect two of the seven Board of Education members they previously elected, and have those members appointed by the Howard County Executive from a list drawn up by the Howard County legislative delegation.

Of the remaining five board members that Howard County voters would still be permitted to elect themselves, two of them would be elected at-large in the same manner as today, and the remaining three would be elected from the Howard County portions of the state senate districts wholly or partly contained within Howard County (currently Districts 9, 12, and 13).

I’m not going to speculate on the possible motives of those proposing this new schemes, what problem they think they are trying to solve, or what they hope to accomplish by taking away the ability of Howard County voters to elect these two board members.

However I do want to point out two potential issues with the proposal:

First, as noted above, the two appointed members would have to be selected from a list prepared by the Howard County legislative delegation. But Howard County shares several of its legislative districts with other counties, including Senate Districts 9 (shared with Carroll County) and 12 (shared with Baltimore County), and House of Delegates District 9A (shared with Montgomery County).

Given that, it’s possible that four of the members of the “Howard County” delegation may not even live in Howard County. What business would they have picking candidates for the Howard County Board of Education?

Second, also as noted above, the three districts with elected Board of Education members would be based on the one Senate district wholly within Howard County (currently District 13) and the Howard County portions of the two Senate districts partially within the county (currently Districts 9 and 12).

But here’s the problem: there’s no guarantee that the Howard County portions of the second and third districts will be equal in population to the first district. It’s quite possible that the second and third districts may have only a few thousand—or even only a few hundred—voters in Howard County, yet those voters would have as much influence over the Board of Education as the tens of thousands of voters elsewhere in the county.

(This problem doesn’t exist with the current Board of Education districts because the councilmanic districts are constrained by the county charter to be approximately equal in population.)

The bottom line: besides taking away the ability of Howard County parents and other voters to select two of the Board of Education members, this proposal is complicated and fraught with potential problems that would further reduce the ability of Howard County voters to influence the composition of the board.

Ranked choice voting: a better alternative

Enough of that. Here I present a better proposal, introduced by Chao Wu and Jen Terrasa, that

  • preserves the ability of Howard County voters to elect all members of the Board of Education (except for the student member, of course);
  • does a better job of reflecting voters’ true preferences;
  • can potentially eliminate the need to have Board of Education primary elections, and thus ensure that the maximum number of voters participates in electing the board; and
  • is less prone to some of the problems some people might have had with both the traditional method of electing the Board of Education and the method used in 2020, as well as other methods .

That proposal involves so-called “ranked choice voting,” a scheme that allows voters to rank candidates in order of their preference, and that allows their votes to be transferred to another preferred candidate in the event that their most preferred candidate is not elected. Ranked choice voting is being increasingly adopted by jurisdictions around the U.S. and has been popular with voters in elections where it has been used.

Advantages of ranked choice voting

To expand on what I wrote above, ranked choice voting has the following advantages over current ways of electing either a single Board of Education member (i.e., per district) or at-large board members:

Elimination of primary elections. As discussed in more detail in the next section, a ranked choice election can eliminate the need to have primary elections, since there is no need to winnow down the number of candidates for the general election.

Instead all candidates would run in the general election, and voters could indicate their preferences between them. If a voter’s favorite candidate were not elected then the voter’s indicated preferences could help elect another candidate they also favor. The ranked choice method of counting votes works the same whether there’s one seat to be decided (i.e., for a district) or more than one (i.e., for an at-large seat).

Eliminating primaries is especially important for Board of Education races, because the board is supposed to be a nonpartisan body open to anyone interested in improving the school system, not a body made up of professional politicians primarily interested in pursuing their party’s agenda. Having no primary election means that running for the board should be less expensive and thus open to more potential candidates, and holding the election at general election time means that the voter base will include voters beyond just party activists and partisans.

Reducing “wasted” votes. When there are multiple candidates in a race, voters will often not vote for their favored candidates because their chances of winning are uncertain. Ranked choice voting allows voters to give a first preference vote to their favored candidates and second, third, etc., preferences to other candidates. That way, even if their favored candidate loses, their votes can still help elect other candidates that they like.

Preventing a slim majority of voters from dominating other voters. In the tradition Board of Education elections, or in the current election of at-large members, it is possible for a slim majority of voters to elect all their favored candidates: they simply vote as a bloc for their candidates, so that all those candidates have the most number of votes and are thus elected. This leaves other voters without representation of their views. (Incidentally, this is exactly why traditional at-large elections have been outlawed in many jurisdictions, because they were used as a way to enable a white majority to disenfranchise Black voters.)

This bloc voting strategy doesn’t work in a ranked choice election because of the way the ranked choice mechanism works, giving voters representation in rough propertion to the size of their voting bloc. For example, in an election to pick two at-large board members, a 51% majority could elect one at-large member, but would be very unlikely to succeed in electing two. That’s because there would be enough people in the 49% minority giving their preferences for other candidates that one of those candidates would very likely be elected once all voter preferences were accounted for.

Making it more likely that winning candidates will have broad appeal among voters. The key to winning as a candidate in a ranked choice election is not just to have your core group give you their first preference votes. In an election with three, four, five, or more candidates, it’s unlikely that those votes alone will be enough to put you over the line. Winning thus also requires persuading voters outside your base to mark you as their second or even third preference.

Ranked choice elections work against extreme candidates because they typically won’t get second or third preferences from outside their base. (To use the jargon term, they aren’t “transfer-friendly.”)

Electing district and at-large board members using ranked choice voting

There are multiple ways that ranked choice voting might be used to elect Board of Education members. Here I present two possible schemes, one a variant of the method currently used, and one a variant on the traditional way of electing Board of Education members.

In the first scheme we would continue the current practice of electing five Board of Education members by district (using the five Howard County councilmanic districts) and electing two board members at large, but using ranked choice voting in both types of election.

In the 2020 election the maximum number of Board of Education candidates running in the primary election was six (in District 4); other districts had only four candidates (District 5), three (Districts 2 and 3), or two candidates (District 1, where no primary was needed).

As discussed above, with ranked choice voting we could skip the primary election and have all Board of Education district candidates run in the general election. Voters would rank candidates in order of their preference, and then the ranked choice vote counting scheme would go as follows:

  1. If any candidate received more than 50% of the first preference votes then they would automatically be elected.
  2. If no candidate received more than 50% of the first preference vote, then the candidate with the least number of first preference votes would be eliminated, and their votes transferred to other candidates according to the preferences of the voters who gave the eliminated candidate their first preference.
  3. The process of eliminating candidates and transferring their votes would continue until one candidates accumulated enough votes to go over the 50% mark.

Note that when electing a single candidate, ranked choice voting is often referred to as instant-runoff voting: because voters would have already expressed their preferences for their second, third, etc., choices, there would be no need to hold a separate runoff election if one candidate didn’t receive more than 50% of the votes in the first round.

In 2022 eight Board of Education candidates ran in the primary for the two at-large seats. Again, we could dispense with the primary election and just have all candidates run in the general election, with two board members elected using ranked choice voting. The process would be similar to that described above, except that the “quota” would be 33.3%: any candidate receiving more than that number of votes, whether from first preference votes or from votes transferred from others, would be deemed elected.

Electing all board members county-wide with ranked choice voting

In this alternate scheme we would revert to the traditional method of electing three at-large Board of Education members elected during presidential election years and four at-large members during gubernatorial election years. The only difference would be to use ranked choice voting in the elections to select the top candidates, similar to what was described above for using ranked choice voting to elect two at-large members.

Again we could dispense with the primary and just have voters rank all candidates in the general election. In that case the quota for being elected would be 20% plus 1 when electing four board members, and 25% plus 1 when electing three.

Addressing objections to ranked choice voting

There are various objections that might be made to using ranked choice voting for Board of Education elections. In this section I address those objections.

“Ranked choice voting is too complicated for voters.” I don’t see this as an issue at all. Experience with other jurisdictions, including New York City, has indicated that voters understand the process of ranking candidates and are generally satisfied with the results. Howard County has a relatively highly educated population; if voters in New York City can understand ranked choice voting then I’m sure voters here can as well.

“Ranked choice voting is too complicated and expensive for the Howard County Board of Elections.” There would be some added expenses in conducting a ranked choice election, mainly to design the ballots and implement the special process for tabulating results. However, there are plenty of resources available for election officials on how to run ranked choice elections successfully and efficiently, and free and open source ranked choice tabulation software (e.g., RCTab) that has already been certified for use in several jurisdictions. It’s also possible that the Board of Elections could offset some or all of the cost by not conducting Board of Education primary elections, as discussed above.

“Since the ranked choice voting calculations depend on knowing the total number of voters, election results will take a long time to determine if voters can vote by mail.” The short answer here is that traditional elections can also take a long time to be decided when mail ballots arrive late, as happened in the 2022 House of Delegates race for District 9A. That’s a universal trade-off with voting by mail, if voters are allowed to mail ballots up to 8:00 PM on election day.

The longer answer is that since the ranked choice calculations can be easily and quickly done by computer, the Board of Elections could simply release intermediate results, including the effects of voters’ second, third, etc., preferences, as the votes come in. As with other elections, results would not be final until all late ballots were accounted for and any other ballot-related issues were resolved.

“The ranked choice voting computations are a ‘black box,’ and we don’t have confidence in the way the calculations are done.” This issue can be addressed by using open source software (like RCTab, mentioned above) to provide transparency for how the calculations are done, and then releasing data for the final certified results showing all ballots and how they were marked. This would enable other people (like me, or anyone else able to run the software) to double-check the official results.

“Ranked choice voting would unduly disadvantage (or unduly advantage—take your pick) parents’ groups, the Howard County Education Association, the Democratic or Republican parties, or other interest groups.” Interest groups could still make endorsements like they currently do, indicating which candidates should (in their view) receive voter preferences, and which should not. If they strongly favor some preferred candidates over others, they can specify how they think voters should rank them.

The only real caution interest groups would need to take would be to not endorse too many candidates, lest voters split their first preference votes between them and cause none of them to be elected in the first round. As noted above, this is actually an advantage of ranked choice voting: it reduces the ability of a 51% majority to elect all at-large members by bloc voting for a slate of candidates.

“Ranked choice voting is inferior to approval voting.” This is a more esoteric objection, but is worth addressing. Approval voting is a different voting scheme in which voters simply mark which candidates are acceptable to them—and can approve of more than one—and then the candidate with the most “approvals” is elected. Regardless of whether approval voting is superior to ranked choice voting, either in theory or in practice, its greater simplicity is only present in elections where a single candidate is elected.

So-called “multiwinner approval voting” is more complicated, requiring a choice between multiple methods of counting approval ballots. It would be simpler for both voters and election officials to use a standard ranked choice mechanism for both single-winner districts and multi-winner at-large seats.

“Ranked choice voting could produce a result that doesn’t reflect who should actually win.” There are no perfect voting systems that are guaranteed to produce intuitively “correct” results in every possible scenario. Ranked choice voting is no exception.

But ranked choice voting has been successfully used for many elections, not only in the US but also in juridictions like Ireland and Northern Ireland, which have conducted dozens of elections and elected hundreds of officeholders using ranked choice voting. (They just call it something different: “proportional representation with a single transferable vote,” or PR-STV.) There is no reason to think it can’t work just as well in Howard County.

For further exploration