Ranked-choice voting would help bipartisanship

Panera Bread founder and Massachusetts resident Ron Shaich writes that plurality voting isn’t conducive to long-term problem-solving. In this exclusive op-ed, he writes about the need for the Bay State to adopt ranked-choice voting this fall.

By Ron Shaich  |  October 13, 2020

In 1981, across from Park Street station in downtown Boston, I opened a 400-square-foot bakery that would evolve into Au Bon Pain and ultimately Panera Bread. Who could have ever imagined back then that that little store on Winter Street would grow into a $6 billion business, with nearly 2,500 units across North America? The company I created was a forerunner for what is today called “fast casual.” Back in 1981, who could have imagined that fast casual would grow into a $60 billion market sector of the U.S. economy and the hottest segment in the industry. Fast casual turned out to be a better solution for so many customers then fast food or full service. In business, understanding and delivering on the real needs of customers is always the path to long-term success. Too often, political leaders seem to take a wildly different approach to leadership.

In Massachusetts, we’re looking to change all that. A petition with nearly 170,000 signatures, accomplished by a statewide network of thousands of grassroots volunteers, has put ranked choice voting (RCV) as Question 2 on the ballot in the commonwealth this Election Day. Ranked choice voting is a simple iteration to the way we vote, not so different from what I did when starting Panera and Au Bon Pain. I didn’t reinvent the restaurant or abandon the basic principles of running a food-service operation, I just made some changes that provided a better option for many guests.

Under ranked choice voting, voters would rank candidates in order of preference instead of choosing just one candidate. What this does is ensure the candidate with the broadest support wins. It effectively strips power from the most partisan candidates with the loudest voices and it reduces the impact of special interests and big money donors. Candidates can’t just sail in by offering “red meat” to their ideological base, they need to reach out and find as much common ground with as many voters as possible to rank high, if not first, on the lists of as many voters as possible. This favors candidates who offer policy proposals that can receive the support of a majority of the electorate. It moves our candidates away from the “blame game” and challenges them to offer real solutions that would have broad-based popular support. Unfortunately, I think this is so sorely lacking in our politics today.

Politicians go to office to serve the public who elected them. That’s the whole point. But I sometimes think we forget this when we’re constantly bombarded with political discourse that rarely involves bipartisanship, common ground or a duty to serve, and that instead pits parties against one another, treating campaigns and legislative debates like a dramatic “winner take all,” playoff series. Democracy doesn’t work well when all we have are warring teams or factions, focused on tearing down the other side. Democracy serves us best when it is structured to produce leaders who can attract the support of the majority of the citizens and actually get their proposals enacted into law.

I’ve often thought that we have lost the ability to take the long view in politics. One of the reasons: Today we find ourselves in a place where our structures don’t engender long-term problem-solving. Our plurality voting system, still in place in most of the country, allows candidates from the far right and the far left to dominate primaries with the support of a slice of the electorate. We end up with candidates in a general election without the inclination to work with the other side of the aisle. As a result, dysfunction rules the day.

It is all too easy to blame the other side for that dysfunction. Unfortunately, such a system is not sustainable, and it runs counter to the interests of the American people. Just look at the months-long debacle in Congress and the inability of our legislative leaders to enact a second, badly needed, Covid-relief bill for the American people, many of them from my industry. We can’t keep electing leaders who are intent on tearing down the legacy of their predecessors in the opposing party or we’ll be mired in quicksand forever. We need leadership that is in office to solve problems and get things done, not to squabble and come up with snarky soundbites.

Voting Yes on 2 can be a first step in ensuring our leaders are elected with a true majority — with the needs of all of their constituents in mind not just their admiring fans — and who understand that the discovery of common interests is the only way we can improve our nation’s long-term prospects and start moving forward once again.

Massachusetts resident Ron Shaich, the founder and former chairman and CEO of Panera Bread, is today the CEO and managing partner of Act III Holdings. Shaich is also co-founder of No Labels, a board member of Unite America, and an honorary co-chair of Yes on 2, the campaign to bring ranked-choice voting to Massachusetts.