By | October 22, 2020
In the 4th Congressional District this year, a seven-way contest produced a Democratic nominee who won by a razor-thin margin with just 22 percent of the vote.
In crowded contests where only a slim plurality produces a win, this is not rare. This common mathematical reality, however, can produce an electoral result that arguably controverts the spirit of democracy when a nominee or an elected representative advances with far below a majority of constituency support.
In states like Massachusetts where one party dominates, this phenomenon most often rears its head in primaries and must be addressed to ensure that our elections as often as possible accurately represent the will of the people. It is far from ideal to redress these issues hastily by ballot initiative, but unfortunately, Beacon Hill has shown little interest in tackling the challenge. Ranked-choice voting, imperfect though it may be, is the best way forward right now.
The aim of RCV is to determine which candidate has a majority of support among the electorate while mitigating the need for “lesser-than-two-evils” game theory at the voting booth.
As it stands now, a large field of candidates where a hopeful only needs a plurality can potentially result in troubling electoral outcomes. A candidate who emerges from a primary with a plurality victory might not be the one with the most overall support, and prove to be weaker in the general. Think of the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary, where second- and third-place finishers split their support while Shannon O’Brien advanced with 33 percent of the vote — far short of a clear majority of support. Ms. O’Brien would go on to lose to Mitt Romney in the general.
Crowded races where a simple plurality wins also benefit fringe or extreme candidates who rile up a fraction of the electorate. A majority of voters might be staunchly opposed, but divide themselves among the “reasonable” alternatives — think Donald Trump’s war-of-attrition victory in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. As Ranked Choice Voting Committee 2020 board member Mike Zarren told The Eagle, “The extremes tend to win, and most people are more moderate.”
Opponents of RCV acknowledge these very real challenges to the health of the democratic process, but maintain that there are better ways forward. The only real alternative on the table, however, is the preliminary and runoff model, which would be inferior to RCV in multiple ways. With runoffs, taxpayers have to foot the bill for two (or more) electoral events instead of one, just to wind up with depressed turnout compared to RCV, according to statistics on voter participation analysis.
Early voting, a popular option in Massachusetts, would further complicate runoffs, unreasonably extending the amount of time between preliminary and runoff needed just to decide a single race.
RCV could efficiently limit these pitfalls. It gives a clearer picture of which candidate would actually have the support of a majority of voters. Those inclined to vote for underdog or third-party candidates would not have to fret strategic voting or being a “spoiler.”
Proponents claim it would also disincentivize negative campaigning by making it more risky for candidates to take an aggressive tack that might appeal to a vocal minority but rankle a larger fraction of voters.
RCV opponents argue the system is too complex, but the change in balloting reflects an intuitive perspective for voters in races with many candidates. It would allow Bay Staters to vote their heart while indicating their support beyond their most-preferred candidate by marking their second choice, third choice and so on.
RCV would not completely upturn the state’s elections. It would not apply to presidential and municipal contests. It would only be in play for certain statewide races — state Legislature, governor or U.S. Congress — that have three or more candidates on the ballot.
In those cases, if a candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, the election ends as it would now. If no candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and her first-choice voters would have their next preferences allocated toward the remaining candidates. That counting process proceeds until a candidate gets a majority of votes.
It’s worth noting that in more than 80 percent of elections with RCV, the electoral outcome is the same as in so-called “first-past-the-post” elections. RCV simply means that the winner advances because they’ve demonstrated broader support among the electorate, and not just among a simple plurality.
To be sure, revamping our state elections system is a big ask for Massachusetts voters. As is the case with most ballot initiatives, it would have been preferable for the Legislature to do its job and take on the matter, perhaps toward a more nuanced and deliberated solution.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned issues that impinge on the democratic process have not been meaningfully addressed by lawmakers. At this juncture, therefore, ranked-choice voting is the best option.
The Eagle endorses voting yes on Question 2.