Ranked choice voting could be on the Massachusetts ballot in 2020

Supporters are taking the first steps to bring the unconventional voting system to the Bay State.

Ballots are prepared to be tabulated for Maine's Second Congressional District's House election Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Augusta, Maine. The election is the first congressional race in American history to be decided by the ranked-choice voting method that allows second choices. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Ranked choice voting ballots are prepared to be tabulated during Maine's 2nd District congressional election last November. –Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Could Massachusetts follow in Maine’s footsteps next year?

Supporters of ranked choice voting are beginning the push for a 2020 ballot question proposing the unconventional election system for the Bay State.

“While we will continue advocating for the successful passage of two ranked choice voting bills before the Legislature this session, we are finalizing language to submit to the Attorney General as the first step toward getting RCV before the voters on the 2020 ballot,” Emily Fitzmaurice, the communications director for Voter Choice Massachusetts, said in a statement, which was first reported Wednesday evening by the State House News Service.

Wednesday is the deadline for 2020 ballot initiative petitions to be filed to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office. Fitzmaurice said the details of their petition will be available within the next few days.

What is ranked choice voting?

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The potential ballot measure could fundamentally change how Bay Staters fill out their ballot.

Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference — first, second, third, and so on — as opposed to checking the box for a single candidate. The system requires that candidates get at least 50 percent of the vote to win. If no candidate reaches that threshold when the first-choice votes are counted, the candidate who finished last is eliminated. Then, the voters who chose the eliminated candidate as their first choice have their votes reallocated according to their next choice, and the votes are then recounted. The process is repeated until a candidates breaks the majority threshold.

Maine became the first state in the country to implement ranked choice voting last year after a 2016 ballot measure (which was also backed by Voter Choice) was approved by voters. The system even impacted the results of a four-way, swing-district congressional race in the state.

Cambridge has used a version of ranked choice voting for its city council and school committee elections since 1941, and Amherst is planning to implement it for the first time in 2021.

While critics argue ranked choice voting can be confusing, supporters say it eliminates the fear of “spoiler” effects from third-party candidates and results in more civil elections since campaigns may vie to be voters’ second choice if they can’t be their first. The system has earned praise from some prominent Bay State elected officials, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Seth Moulton.

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“Ranked Choice Voting is an important step to re-energize and empower voters at this critical time in our democracy by strengthening our voice at the ballot box and ensuring elected leaders are supported by a majority of voters,” Fitzmaurice told Boston.com.

What’s next?

The petition filing is just the first step in the process of proposing a statewide ballot question in Massachusetts.

According to state law, the group must submit its petition and 10 signatures to Healey’s office by Aug. 7. If certified by the attorney general, Voter Choice will have until Dec. 4 to collect 80,239 signatures on its petition. If they reach that mark, state lawmakers will get the opportunity to pass the measure or propose a substitute next year.

If the legislature does not pass the measure by May 6, ranked choice supporters will have to collect 13,374 more signatures to file with state and local election officials by July. If successful, the measure will be placed on the 2020 ballot.

Voter Choice, which organized a 300-person rally outside the State House last month, has been supporting two bills currently pending before legislature to expand ranked choice voting in Massachusetts. One would enact the system for all state and federal elections (except for president), and one would make it easier for communities to adopt ranked choice voting for their location elections.

Fitzmaurice says the group is “focused on continuing to build upon the tremendous momentum we’re seeing — both inside the State House and across the Commonwealth.”