A pattern has emerged in recent Massachusetts primary races.
More than three quarters of voters in the recent 4th District race cast ballots against its ultimate winner, Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss. And in the deep-blue state, where Democratic primaries often prove most decisive, it was hardly the first time.
In fact, winning without the support of the vast majority of voters has become a feature of most recent open House primaries.
In 2018, Rep. Lori Trahan won her 3rd District primary with less than 22 percent of the vote. In 2013, Rep. Katherine Clark won with less than 32 percent. In 1998, former Rep. Mike Capuano clinched the nomination with 23 percent.
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According to an increasingly loud group of critics, the traditional, so-called “plurality voting” system has become a problem in Massachusetts.
But a ballot question before voters this fall proposes what they say is an easy fix: Ranked choice voting.
Question 2 — one of two questions that will be decided by Massachusetts voters on Nov. 3 — is a ballot measure that could change how Bay Staters cast ballots, proposing ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, for state and federal elections in the state beginning in 2022.
Under the system, voters are allowed to rank as many candidates as they want on their ballot based on preference — first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. — and candidates must win at least 50 percent of the vote to win.
If no candidates get a 50 percent majority after the voters’ first-choice picks are counted, the last-place finisher gets eliminated and has their first-choice votes reallocated based on who their supporters chose as their second choice. The ballots are then recounted, and, if necessary, the process repeats, until one candidate reaches the 50 percent threshold.
“People should support who they want to support, and let’s see what the majority actually wants,” Evan Falchuk, the board chair of the Yes On 2 campaign, recently told Boston.com in an interview.
The process forces candidates to earn an “actual majority of the votes” to win the election, according to Danielle Allen, the director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.
“You don’t have situations where somebody holds office, and, in fact, the majority of people in their district voted against them,” she said.
But perhaps more importantly, ranked choice voting mitigates the fear of “spoiler effect,” where a split coalition allows a candidate most voters opposed to win. That dynamic in Maine’s gubernatorial elections prompted voters there to adopt ranked choice voting in 2016.
“People should support who they want to support”
Allen says the system allows people to vote for their “genuine preferences” as opposed to having to strategically decide between their first choice and the candidate they perceive to be more viable.
“They have to be almost like a political analyst” she said, “versus in a rank choice election, as a voter, I can vote for whoever I like the most and I don’t have to feel like I’m changing something by doing it.”
Maine became the first state in the country to adopt ranked choice voting, which has also been used in some form in other state primaries and municipal elections across the country, including in Cambridge.
Question 2 could make Massachusetts the second (or at least tied for second; a similar initiative is also on the ballot this fall in Alaska).
If passed, the ballot question would implement ranked choice voting in both primary and general elections for state and federal office in Massachusetts. That means all state legislative seats, county offices such as district attorney and sheriff, statewide seats like governor and attorney general, and federal races for the U.S. House and Senate. The question would not apply to local municipal or presidential elections.
Proponents say the system would result in more civil campaigns, increase coalition building, and encourage more diverse candidates — both ideologically and demographically.
“I think that one thing we’ve learned over the last number of years, it’s not enough to just elect new people,” Falcuk said. “We have to do something more structural to the way our democracy works.”
However, Massachusetts is not Maine. And skeptics question whether ranked choice voting is the best answer for addressing crowded primaries where the field can run deep with lesser-known candidates.
“If it was for just the general elections, I would probably support it,” says Eitan Hersh, a Tufts University political science professor who studies elections and voting. “The primaries is why I’m not supporting it.”
Particularly in crowded fields with longer ballots, ranked choice voting elections carry the risk of “ballot exhaustion,” in which some voters do not rank all of the candidates. And while their votes would still be counted in the initial rounds, incomplete ballots run the risk of being “exhausted” and not counted in the final tally (this can also result in the ultimate winner taking a majority of the remaining votes, but not 50 percent of all votes).
While supporters say the recent 4th District race is a “prime example” of why ranked choice voting is needed, opponents of Question 2 say such a primary — where the differences between candidates can be minute — demonstrates its potential limits, since voters often don’t rank all the candidates.
“I definitely can’t tell you the differences between them,” Anthony Amore, a former Republican candidate for Massachusetts secretary of state involved in the effort opposing Question 2, told CommonWealth magazine. “To go in and say, ‘I’m going rank these eight people’ … the difference between them was razor thin, it becomes a guessing game.”
Research has found that up to around 10 percent of ballots are “exhausted” in ranked choice voting elections that go into multiple rounds of counting.
Proponents argue that these issues aren’t unique to ranked choice voting.
A study by the election reform group FairVote, which supports ranked choice voting, found that the drop off in voter turnout in traditional runoff elections was nearly twice the rate of ballot exhaustion in ranked choice voting elections.
The group also found that nearly 3 million votes — or 8.3 percent of the total ballots cast — in this year’s crowded Democratic presidential primaries went to candidates who had withdrawn from the race by election day. In the recent 4th District primary race, more than 7,500 votes — or nearly 5 percent of ballots — went to candidates who dropped out to throw their support behind a candidate who they thought had a better chance of winning.
“These big candidate fields aren’t going away,” David Daley, a senior fellow at FairVote, told Boston.com. “Voters are being asked to evaluate large fields no matter what. We should also give them the tools to cast a more powerful ballot.”
Hersh, however, says his particular concern with ranked choice voting is whose vote goes uncounted.
In Maine, opponents have argued that ballot exhaustion was more common in less educated areas. Hersh also voiced concern that making the process of filling out a ballot more complicated, even if ever so slightly, could increase wait times at polling places in cities like Boston where there already can sometimes be long lines to vote on Election Day.
“Just like any other time you make voting harder or more complicated, it tends to burden people who have lower socioeconomic status,” he said.
“The ranking of candidates across a ballot advantages sophisticated and higher educated voters who have greater information, who have greater ability to inform themselves about 10 candidates in an election, and what their preferences would be across 10 candidates,” Lee Goodman, a former Federal Election Commission chair who led lawsuits against ranked choice voting in Maine, said in a recent debate with Falchuk.
Still, the Yes on 2 campaign is backed by a number of local civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, Amplify LatinX, and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. While researchers have found it difficult to assess whether there are racial disparities in exhausted ballots, a 2019 study concluded there is “little evidence of race/ethnic differences in reported understanding,” though older voters did report less understanding of ranked choice elections.
“One thing that I would recommend that Massachusetts do, if it adopts this voting system, is that it requires a lot of voter education to make voters comfortable with it,” Goodman said. “And the instructions that accompany the ballot need to be very clear.”
Studies on ranked choice voting’s impact on turnout have also produced mixed results.
A recent study of 200 cities over several decades by San Francisco State University professor Jason McDaniel found that the implementation of ranked choice voting was associated with a 3 to 5 percent decrease in voter turnout. In a 2014 paper, McDaniel also found that it increased turnout disparities among age and education groups.
However, the Yes on 2 campaign and others have raised methodological questions about McDaniel’s research. The group notes that turnout in all municipal elections of all types had been falling over the same time period and point to recent examples of cities that saw significant increases in turnout after implementing ranked choice voting.
If anything, the effect might be a wash.
“RCV does not appear to have a strong impact on voter turnout and ballot completion,” wrote the authors of a comprehensive University of Missouri-St. Louis study in 2016, adding that their case study of Minneapolis found “similar levels of socioeconomic and racial disparities in voter participation in plurality and RCV elections.”
One area where ranked choice voting may have an effect, however, is who is on the ballot. Research by FairVote and others suggests ranked choice voting may increase the number of women and people of color, as well as third-party candidates, running for office.
By eliminating the spoiler effect, Allen says the system “makes it easier for less established candidates to enter into electoral politics.” Ranked choice voting supporters also say the system promotes more civil campaigning, since candidates can’t completely rule out the segment of the electorate that has already made their first choice.
“They also have to be the second choice for their opponent’s voters.” Allen said. “So it’s not worth their while to demonize their opponent in the same sort of way. And that improvement in the environment for campaigning is another mechanism that brings more people into participation.”
In an era of increasing polarization, Falchuk says the country could use more mechanisms to encourage consensus and coalition building.
“If you’re campaigning and you see the sign of another candidate in front of somebody’s house, under the current first-past-the-post system, you do not go to that house,” he said in the debate with Goodman. “It’s not worth your time. In a ranked choice election, you go knock on that voter’s door and ask them, ‘What can we agree on?'”
Still, the system is not immune to backlash; at least a half dozen cities have repealed ranked choice voting shortly after implementation, which Hersh attributes to a particularly salient form of loss aversion.
“The idea that someone might win a plurality and then lose because of this complicated path of instant runoffs, I think some people will find that really devastating and in a way that’s different from now,” he said.
For example, Burlington, Vermont, repealed ranked choice voting after a somewhat aberrant four-way race in 2009, when a third-party mayoral candidate won, even though voters appeared to prefer the Democratic candidate in head-to-head matchups against the other three competitors.
Falchuk says the Burlington election was a “freakish example” and notes there are far more places that have kept ranked choice voting than repealed it.
“Australia has been doing this for 100 years,” he said, noting that “no human endeavor is 100% perfect.” (Burlington’s city council also put ranked choice voting back on the ballot this November.)
“Anything is possible if we were to get very mathematical about a particular problem and find out what statistically could take place,” Falchuk said. “But on the other side of the scale we have a mountain of real world evidence of problems in our current system that are happening right now.”
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