It’s the linchpin of any functioning democracy: Citizens choose their leaders. But too often in this country, the will of constituents is thwarted, and we elect officials who don’t have the support of a majority of voters.
Massachusetts voters can strike an important blow for majority rule by voting yes on Question 2 in November and moving to ranked-choice voting for a number of state and federal elections.
Rather than selecting one candidate per race, ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the vote, then instant runoffs take place, where the votes of the last-place candidates are reallocated based on the second choice listed on those ballots. That process is repeated until a candidate earns a majority of the vote and is declared the winner.
The process would encourage a broader field of qualified candidates — including independent and third-party candidates — to run for office without fear of a “spoiler” effect. And it would mean voters could cast ballots for candidates they truly favor rather than voting for a candidate they don’t much like in order to thwart an undesired outcome. (Think about all the Democrats who since the 2000 election have been reluctant to vote third party so as not to replicate “the Nader effect.”)
Ranked-choice voting could also change the nature of campaigning for the better. Because candidates would be hunting for second- and third-choice votes, they would seek broad support from the electorate rather than target only specific demographics that might offer the strongest support. And they would have less incentive to engage in negative campaigning: Attack a rival and you may turn off their supporters and lose second- or third-choice votes.
But most importantly, the winning candidate in ranked-choice voting systems reflects the choice of the majority.
We know it works. Ranked-choice voting, also called instant-runoff voting, has been in place in Cambridge for decades and was adopted statewide in Maine in 2018, though it won’t be used in a presidential election until November. But it was used in four other states for this year’s Democratic presidential primaries. Those contests largely went off without a hitch, according to an analysis by nonpartisan election reform group FairVote, even with stronger voter turnout than in 2016 and even with in-person voting canceled in two of those states, Alaska and Hawaii, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are plenty of recent Massachusetts elections that would have gone better with ranked-choice voting in place, including last month’s crowded, tightly fought Democratic primary race for the open Fourth Congressional District seat. When the recount was complete, Jake Auchincloss emerged as the winner with less than 23 percent of the total vote — not even a strong plurality. Auchincloss himself understands that a sliver of the vote does not make for a strong mandate. And he’s called for rejecting the system that won him the Democratic nomination and replacing it with ranked-choice voting.
But the poster child for ranked-choice voting may be former Fall River mayor Jasiel Correia, who was recalled in 2019 — and won reelection on the very same ballot with 35 percent of the vote. Though Correia later lost another reelection bid and currently awaits trial on federal fraud and extortion charges, instant runoffs would ensure that the will of voters is never again so egregiously flouted.
Ranked-choice voting is not perfect, and opponents have valid concerns about the confusion that implementing a new system may cause, particularly for older voters or those who don’t speak English as a first language. That is why lawmakers on Beacon Hill should ensure that the Secretary of the Commonwealth as well as local election officials have the resources necessary to educate all voters about the process.
Other criticisms, such as the risk of “ballot exhaustion” — where a ballot is not counted in an election because a voter ranks only one candidate or a handful of candidates and all the ranked choices are eliminated in instant runoffs — are far outweighed by a system that better reflects majority sentiment.
Ranked-choice voting is not a cure-all for our ailing democracy — plenty needs to be done to rein in the influence of unlimited corporate spending, stop voter suppression, and boost election security. But with Question 2, Bay State voters can make our government far more representative of the will of the people.