It’s an old conundrum: vote for the person you really want or vote for the lesser of evils who has a chance to win. Some activists are trying to give Western Mass voters the chance to do both.
A meeting was held on March 22 at Amherst College to discuss the potential benefits of ranked-choice voting, a proportional voting system already in used in several U.S. cities and in the state of Maine.
Ranked-choice voting is a system used when there are more than two candidates in a race. “Voters rank all candidates on the ballot, and if their top choice doesn’t receive enough overall support, their vote transfers to their next choice,” a press release for the meeting explained. Once the two most preferred candidates are left, there is a standard election. In theory, this would allow people to vote without concern that their preferred candidate will split the electorate or be a “throwaway” vote.
On March 27, Amherst will hold a town election and residents vote on whether to adopt ranked-choice voting for local elections. Hadley will hold a similar vote during an open Town Meeting on May 3 that will decide if ranked-choice voting is adopted for municipal elections.
About 35 residents from the two towns attended the March 22 meeting at which the keynote speaker was Douglas J. Amy, Professor Emeritus of politics at Mount Holyoke College, who has written extensively about ranked-choice voting. Other speakers included Mandi Jo Hanneke, vice chair of the Charter Commission who talked about how ranked-choice voting would be implemented if the town charter is changed. The meeting was organized by Voter Choice Massachusetts, an organization that advocates for electoral changes that “produce fairer outcomes.”
“The main goal is get this in use statewide. We want to keep educating people about local options, but the longer term goal is to get it on the ballot for 2020,” said Andy Anderson of Voter Choice Massachusetts.
Anderson said the problem with the current way primaries are run, is that lesser-known candidates, who may not have as much name recognition, are shut out by more well-known candidates. With a ranked system, that same lower-status candidate can accumulate the votes from less popular candidates.
The offices which Anderson feels ranked-choice voting would work best in are presidential electors, city councils, and town councils — elections where the results are supposed to reflect a proportional representation of the citizenry.
“We need to work with the state and follow prescribed rules regarding changes in the mode of election,” said Anderson.
Not everyone agrees that ranked-choice voting would lead to more fair election outcomes. In 2014, Craig M. Burnett and Vladimir Kogan of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, analyzed data from 600,000 elections that were held using ranked-choice voting. They found that, “as the number of candidates increases, so does the level of ballot exhaustion.” Ballot exhaustion occurs when only a couple candidates reach the final round. If people rank their three favorite candidates but those candidates don’t reach the final round, Burnett and Kogan argue their votes are not counted. “For example,” write Burnett and Kogan, “San Francisco, which had 16 candidates listed on the ballot, the rate of ballot exhaustion rate was strikingly high (27.1 percent).”
Maine voted via a citizen’s initiative in 2016 to adopt ranked-choice voting, but this has faced legal hurdles. Maine’s state constitution requires elections to be decided by plurality, in which a candidate must receive more votes than any other candidate, rather than majority, in which a candidate must receive more votes than all other candidates combined. The state constitution also states that counting and sorting of votes be done at the municipal level, rather than a central state location, as ranked-choice voting would require. Because of this, the legislature passed a repeal that is currently caught up in the courts.
On June 12, the Maine primary will partially implement ranked-choice voting for the first time for those offices which are not expressly mandated to be decided by plurality. At the same time, a referendum to repeal ranked-choice voting will also be on the ballot.
Kristen Muszynski, the Director of Communications for the Maine Secretary of State’s office said that, “seeing how [ranked-choice voting] works is a luxury that proponents don’t have the time for,” because the referendum to repeal ranked choice voting is being voted on before the effects of it can be observed.
Maine is not the only place where election by plurality is on the books. Most cities, towns, and states use plurality.
Andersen said that by ranking the least-preferred candidates lowest, it ensures they would only be elected “at the end if the bulk of the electorate votes them up the list.”
State Representative Solomon Goldstein-Rose, of Amherst, said that he strongly supports ranked-choice voting. He co-sponsored the Joint Committee on Election Laws last year, a bill which would have eliminated primaries and adopted a general ranked-choice voting form election.
“There’s bigger turnout for general elections,” he said, adding that it can be non-partisan and saves the money usually spent on primary elections. One organization, openprimaries.org, estimated Massachusetts’ primaries for the 2016 election cost the state over $12.6 million.