Starting in 2022, Massachusetts voters might be able to vote for their second favorite, third, fourth, and last-pick choice for political office, if voters across the state approve a proposed ballot question next year to adopt ranked-choice voting.
In Amherst, which has been looking at adopting the voting system for its local elections, Ranked-Choice Voting Commission Chairperson Tanya Leise thinks that ranked-choice voting is more complicated, but serves voters better than the current system.
“Do I make a single vote for the person who I think has the best chance of getting elected or do I get to communicate my preferences through the rankings and say, ‘Well, this third party candidate is the person who I actually support the most,’” she said. “Let your preferences truly be known without having to resort to the kind of strategic voting that we tend to have to do now.”
The statewide ranked-choice proposal entails voting for candidates in a ranked list of favorite to least favorite. If no candidate is the top choice of more than 50 percent of voters, the candidate with the least number of first-choice votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate get moved to their second-place choice. That elimination and redistribution process continues until one candidate wins a simple majority, according to Voter Choice Massachusetts, which is sponsoring the proposed 2020 ballot question.
That differs from the current system, called a plurality system, in which a candidate simply has to win the most number of votes, even if it isn’t a majority.
If ranked-choice passes in November 2020, the system would be used in primary and general elections for all statewide races in Massachusetts as well as federal congressional races including House and Senate, beginning in 2022. It would exclude elections for U.S. president (due to legal complications with the Electoral College), regional district school committee member, and county commissioner, according to organizers.
On December 4, the ranked-choice voting campaign moved past an important hurdle to get on the 2020 ballot, collecting enough signatures to be considered on a preliminary basis.
Meanwhile, the state Legislature has its own plans for ranked-choice voting with two active bills on the topic. The first, “An Act Relative to Ranked Choice Voting (SD768/HD815)” filed by State Sen. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) and State Reps. Andy Vargas (D-Haverhill) and Adrian Madaro (D-Boston) would implement ranked-choice voting in all state and federal elections, except for the presidential race, staring with the September 2022 primary.
The other — “An Act Providing a Local Option for Ranked Choice Voting in Municipal Elections (SD1800/HD1999)” would allow cities and towns across the state to adopt ranked-choice voting during municipal elections instead of requiring state Legislature approval or a charter change. That bill is being sponsored by state Sen. Rebecca Rausch (D-Needham) and state Rep. Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg).
Voting on a new voting system
Voter Choice Massachusetts kicked-off its ranked-choice voting movement more than three years ago and has recruited at least 1,000 volunteers across the state canvassing for signatures and 33,000 members.
“As of this summer, we started laying the groundwork to put ranked-choice voting on the ballot for 2020,” explained Mac D’Alessandro, campaign director for Voter Choice Massachusetts. “We’ve discovered through our work these past two years when talking to voters that they’re interested in this common-sense upgrade to the ballot when it applies to state and non-presidential federal races.”
But for others, they see drawbacks in ranked-choice voting.
Paul Craney, spokesperson and board member for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said he isn’t in favor of ranked-choice voting. He prefers to call it “instant run-off voting” because its elimination rounds mimic “run-off” elections employed in other states — where voters return to the polls at a later date to select among the top two candidates, neither of which topped 50 percent.
He added, “All voting processes have benefits and flaws. The current system that we have now has a lot of benefits and you can find examples of flaws. Instant-runoff voting is the same.”
Craney said he believes the primary flaw for ranked-choice voting is that it wouldn’t allow for clear frontrunner candidates.
“When a voter goes to vote, they vote on a preference of different candidates,” he explained. “The main problem that I have with that is that it becomes problematic when you start to do instant run-off voting without knowing who the final two candidates will be. You’re using a much smaller pool.”
However, D’Alessandro disagreed and thinks ranked-choice voting is better suited to show clear front-runners during an election.
“It ensures that the ultimate winner of elections does in fact have the support of the majority of the voters,” D’Alessandro argued. “If we look at the current plurality [voting] system, you want to talk about no clear front runners? We frequently have elections in which the winners secure 20 and 30 percent of the votes. That says to us that there’s elections that it can hardly be said that the winner has a mandate.”
Craney said he also thinks the issue of whether or not to adopt ranked-choice voting isn’t a Republican-versus-Democrat political battle, but a simple issue of what voting system might work best for the democratic process.
He added that as an alternative to ranked-choice voting, he’d like to see a greater emphasis on preliminary elections.
“Just have a regular old run-off election, which is: you have one election day, no one gets to 51 percent, but there’s clearly two candidates who get the most votes. So, you have another election. And then those two candidates proceed forward and whoever gets the most votes from that wins. That happens everywhere all around the country and works really well,” Craney said.
Craney said he thinks ranked-choice voting would have voters scratching their heads.
“If you were to have an election today with instant run-off voting, I think the average democratic voter would have a very hard time figuring out in their head who would be the last two standing and making a good decision on that.”
But if voters in Massachusetts approved ranked-choice voting, it wouldn’t go into effect until two years later in 2022, D’Alessandro said.
“One of the things we’re very clear about is ensuring that there’s time after the ballot question is successful to really educate voters about this reform, so folks understand it heading into an election, which is why once this passes, it wouldn’t go into effect or apply to elections until 2022. That would give the movement and the secretary, and the local election clerks ample time to let voters know about this change.”
D’Alessandro said Voter Choice was able to secure a total of 110,584 certified signatures — state law requires ballot questions to receive signatures equal to at least 3 percent of the total votes cast for all candidates for Governor in the last election (80,239 in this case). Now, the organization is waiting on certification from the Secretary of the Commonwealth William Francis Galvin.
From there, the state Legislature would have until May 6, 2020, to act on the proposed ballot question that would allow ranked-choice voting, according to the state of Massachusetts’ website.
“What they can do is say, ‘We agree with this question and we pass it.’ That would obviously obviate the need to mount a full-fledged ballot campaign because the Legislature would have adopted it,” D’Alessandro said.
If approved by both houses, the question would then go to Gov. Charlie Baker for his signature. If he were to reject it, the House of Representatives and Senate would need a two-thirds vote to override his veto for it to become law.
If state officials don’t approve it, the group would need to gain an additional 13,374 new signatures (half a percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election) to be placed on the 2020 ballot in Massachusetts, he said. No more than a quarter (3,334) of those signatures could come from a single county in the state.
During the past three years, D’Alessandro has seen support at the activist level for ranked-choice voting across the state.
“The fact that we collected signatures at every single one of the 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth, I think, is a testament to the breadth of support and the willingness of voters throughout our state to give this reform a chance.”
A local victory for ranked-choice
The city of Easthampton recently became the first community in the Pioneer Valley to adopt ranked-choice voting when residents approved it during the Nov. 5, 2019, election. Ranked-choice voting for mayor passed 2,297 to 1,855 and ranked-choice voting for district city councilors was approved 2,306 to 1,840, according to Easthampton city records.
Easthampton District 3 City Councilor Thomas Peake campaigned for ranked-choice voting in his community, and introduced the idea to the city’s Charter Review Subcommittee earlier this year. He has supported ranked-choice voting for years, having gotten his start in political life working as a volunteer for Voter Choice Massachusetts in early 2017.
When voters in Easthampton approved ranked-choice voting last month by 11 percent, he viewed it as a solid victory for the ranked-choice movement as a whole because, although the city is fairly progressive, it also has working-class roots.
“I think what we found is that lots of people already knew what it was, way more than what I expected,” Peake explained. “And out of the people who didn’t know what it was, it was not difficult to get people excited about it, to get people to understand it and say, ‘Oh yeah, that makes way more sense.”
Peake said he’s supportive of ranked-choice voting at the state level, and also believes it would also create positive change for local municipal elections.
“There’s a whole list of reasons why you might want to do this on the statewide level, but there’s also a separate list for the municipal level, including that it makes it so that you no longer need to have preliminary elections to ensure that whoever ends up winning wins with a majority of the vote, which is a substantial cost savings.”
Peake said he believes other communities across the state will be watching Easthampton and other neighboring communities such as Northampton and Amherst, which are currently investigating ranked-choice voting.
Northampton Charter Review Committee member Stan Moulton said the commission hosted a public hearing this past April on election issues, in which about 50 to 60 people attended. Approval for ranked-choice voting during the public hearing was nearly unanimous from residents, Moulton said.
“I don’t think we actually heard any opposition to it,” he said. “Maybe one or two people concerned about the complexity or the need to educate voters on using ranked-choice voting, but no one who expressed outright opposition to it.”
One of the main goals of Northampton’s Charter Review Committee is to increase access to the ballot through other initiatives such as lowering the municipal voting age to 16, extending voting rights to people who aren’t U.S. citizens, as well as ranked-choice voting, Moulton said.
“We’re very concerned about making it easier for people to vote and meaningful for more people to vote in elections,” he said.
Earlier this month, the committee presented its report — which includes a recommendation for ranked-choice voting — to the City Council, but there are many other steps before approval and the earliest before Northampton voters would get a chance to weigh in would be the November 2020 ballot, according to Moulton.
“It goes through the Council, the mayor, and then goes to the state Legislature for consideration, the governor, and then major changes like ranked-choice voting would then have to come back for a ballot vote in Northampton,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Amherst, the Ranked-Choice Voting Commission, headed by chairperson Tanya Leise, is spearheading the town’s research into the ranked election system.
“The plan is that by June we’ll have submitted a report with our recommendations to the Town Council, who would then be the ones to make the final decision on how to move forward, noting that this only affects our local elections, which are every other year,” Leise said. “The election in the fall of 2020 will be state and federal elections, which will still be under the usual rules.”
If approved by the Amherst Town Council, ranked-choice voting would take place the following year during the 2021 municipal election, she noted.
“Although it would apply to all the local elections, where I think it would play the biggest role is for the Town Council election, where each district will be electing two representatives and then there will be three at-large town councilors,” Leise said. “Ranked-choice voting should help make those councilors much more representative of their districts.”
Maine became the first state in the country to use ranked-choice voting across its 488 communities during its June 2018 primary election and then again during the 2018 November general election.
Kristen Muszynski, the Director of Communications for the Maine Secretary of State’s office, said for gubernatorial races, ranked-choice voting is only used during the primary. For the general election, the state uses a single-vote system.
The response to the citizen-initiative-developed ranked-choice voting system has been mixed, with praise and opposition coming in from across the political spectrum, she noted.
In May 2017, the Justices of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued a unanimous advisory opinion that ranked-choice voting is unconstitutional for general elections for state representatives and senators, as well as governor, as Maine’s constitution requires winners for those seats to be decided with a plurality vote, according to the Maine Secretary of State’s website. Ranked-choice voting for primary elections and federal elections are allowed because they are governed by statute.
“Our role has just been to implement the law,” Muszynski said. “It took us some time to figure out how the implementation would go … But there were some legal decisions and some back and forth on how we were going to use it in the state of Maine based on our constitution and what we could and could not do.”
Muszynski said voter education on what ranked-choice voting means hasn’t been an issue in the state.
“More of the questions we’ve received have been, ‘How does it play out on the tabulation end? And how does that work if I do rank, if I don’t rank, and how I rank?’ People were curious about how their vote ultimately plays out. So, that’s been the bulk of our work explaining that process to people.”
In Maine, votes are tabulated in a series of rounds and the lowest vote getter is eliminated in each round until there are only two candidates remaining. The candidate with the most votes during the final round is declared the winner.
Voter Choice Massachusetts has seen a lot of support from residents in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a form of ranked-choice voting for nine at-large City Council positions and six school committee seats has been in place since 1941, D’Alessandro said.
“In Cambridge they use what’s called proportional representation, which can be a little bit more complicated than the version of ranked-choice voting that we’re proposing here in the state,” he said. “Basically, our ranked-choice voting would apply to single seat elections as opposed to ranking candidates for at-large elections or multi-winner districts.”
Leise said the Amherst Ranked-Choice Voting Commission has been trying to learn from the experiences not only of Cambridge and Maine, but communities further away in states such as Minnesota, Colorado, and California.
“There are different rules for how you transfer votes, what kind of software you use to implement it, how you lay out the ballots. There’s many details involved,” she said. “How do you do a recount process? It’s much more complicated for ranked-choice voting than plurality voting.”
‘You couldn’t find a better day’
Going into next year, Easthampton City Councilor Peake said he’s excited about the possibilities of the 2020 ranked-choice ballot question.
“Having it on the ballot at the same time that Donald Trump is up for re-election, at the same time as other ballot questions, and interesting races on the congressional level, I just think you couldn’t find a better day to really just bring this question up,” he said.
He added that he would like to see the statewide bills pass, in particular, the one that would automatically approve ranked-choice voting at the local level if voters approve of it.
For municipalities considering ranked-choice voting, all eyes are on what happens at the state level.
“It certainly makes our work easier if there were changes occurring beyond the town of Amherst,” Leise explained. “But in the meantime we’re not making any assumptions. We’re moving forward and doing our own thing.”
Chris Goudreau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.