Fall River recall election is a ‘textbook example’ of the need for ranked choice voting, supporters say

“Yesterday we witnessed a subversion of democracy in Fall River."

03/13/2019 Fall River  MA- The Mayor of Fall River Jasiel Coreia (cq) greets a person in the lobby of City Hall..Jonathan Wiggs/Globe StaffReporter:Topic:
Fall River Mayor Jasiel Coreia greets a person Wednesday in the lobby of City Hall. –Jonathan Wiggs / The Boston Globe

A group pushing ranked choice voting in Massachusetts says the reelection of embattled Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia illustrates the need for fundamental reform.

Correia, a 27-year-old Democrat who was arrested last fall on federal fraud charges, survived a recall election Tuesday in somewhat unconventional fashion.

Fall River voters were given a two-part ballot in which they were asked if Correia should be removed from office and then to choose from five candidates to replace him. Due to the city’s rules, Correia was allowed to run for re-election on the second part of the ballot. And even though more than 60 percent of voters voted to recall the mayor, he won re-election with a 35-percent plurality in the five-way race.

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“Yesterday we witnessed a subversion of democracy in Fall River,” Mac D’Alessandro,  the state director of Voter Choice Massachusetts, said in a statement Wednesday, noting how 8,738 of 13,546 votes went against Correia on the ballot’s second question.

“A mayor under federal indictment who was recalled by voters remains in office despite the fact that 65 percent of voters opposed his election,” D’Allesandro said. “This is a textbook example of the type of defective outcome Ranked Choice Voting would prevent.”

Under the ranked choice system, which was recently implemented in Maine, voters ranked their preferred choices first, second, third, and so on, instead of casting their ballot for a single candidate. If no one has more than 50 percent of the vote after the first choices are counted, the candidates with the least first-choice votes gets eliminated and has their votes reallocated based on who their supporters picked for their second choice. The process is repeated until a candidate surpasses the 50-percent threshold.

Greg Dennis, the policy director for Voter Choice, believes the system “would have secured the outcome desired by a clear majority of Fall River voters” if used in the recall election Tuesday.

“We can no longer remain content with a system that rewards vote-splitting anomalies and ignores the will of voters,” Dennis said.

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The group is currently pushing two ranked choice voting bills currently being considered on Beacon Hill. The first would enact ranked choice voting for state and federal elections in Massachusetts, beginning in 2022.  The second would maker it easier for city and towns to adopt the system for local elections, allowing municipalities to implement ranked choice with an ordinance, by-law, or local ballot measure (currently, they can only do so through a charter commission or home-rule petition).

Each bill has more than 80 supporters among the 200 combined members of the House and Senate. Adam Friedman, the executive director of Voter Choice, says the group is giving the legislature the opportunity to pass the legislation before moving forward with any other steps.

“If the legislature does not act, then we may consider forming a coalition to advocate for a Ranked Choice Voting ballot measure in 2020,” Friedman told Boston.com.

Maine, which became the first state to use ranked choice voting last year, did so through a 2016 ballot measure after attempts to pass it through the legislature were repeatedly defeated. More than a dozen cities across the country have also implemented the system

In Massachusetts, a version of ranked choice voting has been in use in Cambridge since 1941. And after adopting a new charter last year, Amherst is slated to begin using ranked choice for local elections beginning in 2021. Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who oversees Massachusetts’s elections, has also voiced his support of ranked choice voting.

The Fall River recall election isn’t the first recent example to elicit calls for reform. Last year, Rep. Lori Trahan narrowly won the Democratic primary for the state’s 3rd congressional district with less than 22 percent of the vote.

“That means 78 percent of voters did not choose that person, and that on its face is not democracy,” Friedman told The New York Times at the time.