Two years ago, Lori Trahan won the 10-candidate Democratic primary for the Third Congressional District, which includes Harvard, with just 22% of the vote. She went on to win in the general election and is unopposed for another term this November. A few weeks ago, Jake Auchincloss won his nine-candidate Democratic primary race for the Fourth Congressional District, also with 22% of the vote. He, too, is expected to win in November. In each case, more than three-fourths of the Democrats who voted in the primary wanted someone else to represent them. (Of course, Republican voters in the general election would also prefer someone else.) Supporters of ranked-choice voting say elections with winners based on such a small share of the vote undercut democracy.
On Nov. 3, Massachusetts voters will decide whether they want to adopt ranked-choice voting (RCV). Question 2 was placed on the ballot this year through an initiative petition. If passed, the measure would allow RCV for all Massachusetts state and federal elected officials except the president, starting in 2022. Question 2 does not provide for RCV in presidential elections because, its supporters say, that should be a national question.
How does RCV work? Opponents say it makes voting more complex and difficult, especially for less sophisticated voters. Supporters say, “It’s as simple as 1-2-3.”
In an RCV election with three or more candidates, a voter can choose to vote for just one candidate, as in the past. Or the voter can mark one candidate as their first choice, another as second choice, another as third, and so on through the list of candidates—just as far as the voter cares to go.
To determine the winner in an RCV election, officials start by counting all the first-choice votes. If one candidate gets more than 50% of those votes, that’s the winner.
But if no one gets over 50%, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated. Those who voted for that candidate get their second-choice votes counted instead and added to the totals for candidates who are still in the race. If those votes put one candidate over 50%, that ends the process, and a winner is declared. If not, the process repeats until someone tops 50%.
This process is why RCV is sometimes called “instant-runoff voting.” In effect, it’s like a series of elections with one person eliminated each time until someone gets a majority. But it is less expensive and time-consuming than holding separate runoffs.
RCV does not inherently favor one major party over the other. In the 2000 presidential election, ranked choice voting in Florida would likely have tipped the election to Democrat Al Gore over Republican George W. Bush, assuming Gore would have gotten more second-choice votes from supporters of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. But in 1992, RCV might well have favored the GOP candidate, George H.W. Bush, over Democrat Bill Clinton, if those who voted for Independent Ross Perot had been able to indicate a second choice.
Supporters say RCV would encourage more people to run for office, both in the two major parties and in smaller parties such as Greens, Libertarians, and Independents. Voters could vote for their favorites without worrying they were “throwing away” their votes, because they could also indicate a second and third preference. Minor-party candidates would not be labeled “spoilers” for taking votes away from a major party at the same end of the political spectrum, because their ballots could go toward a more viable candidate in the next round of counting.
RCV advocate Adam Friedman, executive director of Voter Choice Massachusetts, says RCV would make politics both more representative and more civil, because candidates would have to appeal to a broad range of voters, not merely a narrow, fervent base. He also said research from California cities that use RCV showed it increased the number of women and people of color in elective office. “This reform could transform the political culture of this country,” he said in an online webinar linked to the Massachusetts League of Women Voters website.
Some opponents have said RCV undercuts the votes of people who don’t rank all the candidates. Eitan Hersh, associate professor of political science at Tufts, wrote in The Boston Globe, “Proponents of ranked-choice voting argue that voters are free to rank just one candidate. That is true, but it means that those ballots will count less than the ballots of voters who rank all candidates.” Conservative Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby agreed, writing RCV “gives some voters multiple bites of the election apple.”
Opponents have also said that filling out a ranked-choice ballot will take more time, possibly leading to longer lines at polling places. And the Massachusetts Republican State Committee said in a resolution, “Ranked Choice Voting raises the potential for rigging and gaming elections.”
RCV has been endorsed by Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin, Attorney General Maura Healey, The Boston Globe, the Massachusetts League of Women Voters, Common Cause Massachusetts, Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, and a range of other officials and organizations.
The Massachusetts Republican State Committee and the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance have come out in opposition to ranked-choice voting.
Australia and Ireland have used RCV for decades. RCV is currently approved in four U.S. states for presidential primaries, in Maine for state and federal elections, and in 12 states including Massachusetts for local elections. In Massachusetts, RCV is used in Cambridge, Amherst, and Easthampton.
Maine leads the way with ranked-choice voting
Maine was the first state to elect a member of Congress through ranked-choice voting, and the election was a nail-biter.
In the November 2018 midterms, Democrat Jared Golden challenged incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin to represent Maine’s Second Congressional District. The two finished neck and neck, but neither candidate won a majority of the votes. Poliquin was ahead with 46.1% of the vote to Golden’s 45.9%. The difference was about 2,000 votes out of 300,000 cast. Two minor-party candidates had won about 8% of the votes.
This is exactly the kind of situation RCV is designed to resolve. With neither major party candidate having more than 50%, Maine officials began counting the second choices of voters who had supported the minor-party candidates.
Once all those votes were counted and redistributed, Golden had edged into the lead by about 3,500 votes, which was enough to give him a slim majority—50.53% of the vote to Poliquin’s 49.47%. Poliquin called for a recount and also challenged the election in court. However, the recount confirmed Golden’s victory, the courts upheld that result, and Golden took his seat in Congress.