Pros, cons of ranked-choice voting stir debate as some push for change in state

Last winter, more than 60 percent of the voters in Fall River opted to remove Mayor Jasiel Correia from office. Then, something remarkable happened. On the same recall ballot, Correia was allowed to run for reelection against the four other candidates listed. He clung to power with just over a third of the vote.

It was a classic example of a what political scientists call a “spoiler election.” Joe Pereira, an activist in Fall River who helped organize the recall against Correia, is now calling for a new electoral system that, he said, would stop deeply unpopular leaders from winning in spoiler elections.

“I think it would have been very clear that with [more than 60 percent] of the voters that night voting for recall, one would have to assume that that same [number] would have put Jasiel Correia at the bottom of the list.” (At the time of the recall vote, Correia was facing a first round of criminal charges related to a business he founded before becoming mayor. In the months to follow, he was indicted again on crimes related to public corruption.)

This year Massachusetts voters could make a fundamental change in the way they vote for elected officials. Rather than the up-or-down “plurality” system that’s now in place, a ranked-choice voting system would allow voters to prioritize their choices. That means if a voter’s first pick doesn’t win, the ballot would still count, with second and third choices possibly helping decide a winner.

While advocates say ranked-choice voting — also known as instant-runoff voting — would ensure that elected officials have broad support from the public, opponents say the system would do more harm than good. They cast ranked-choice voting as overly complicated, while supporters say it’s possibly easier to understand than the current process.

Here’s how ranked choice voting works: Picture a ballot with five candidates down the left-hand column, and the numbers 1-5 across the top row. Your favorite candidate gets a mark in the No. 1 column, your second choice gets a mark in the No. 2 column, and so on down the line. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Then, that last-place candidate’s votes go to their voters’ second-choice picks. This continues until one candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, or all the ranked votes are tabulated.

A potential ballot question on ranked-choice voting for certain elections, including those for statewide offices, may end up before voters this November. Currently, state lawmakers also are considering two bills on the matter. One would apply to state, legislative and congressional offices; the other bill would allow communities to use ranked-choice voting for local races.

Ranked-choice voting is not a new idea. Cambridge has used its own version for municipal elections since 1941, and across the US, it will be employed by more than a dozen cities by 2021, including New York City. Maine implemented it statewide in 2018, and several states are using it for this year’s presidential primaries.

Rob Richie, head of the nonprofit FairVote, which is pushing for ranked-choice voting nationally, said the goal is to make it more likely that every vote counts. “That governs the principle of how the tally is done,” explained Richie, “So your ballot goes all in with your first choice, but in the event that your first choice is not able to help elect that candidate, your ballot can go to a second backup choice.”

State Rep. Andy Vargas, of Haverhill, is a key supporter. He pointed to the 2018 primary that led to the nomination of Congresswoman Lori Trahan. With 10 candidates on the ballot, Trahan won with less than 22 percent of the vote. Vargas said ranked-choice voting would require candidates to appeal to a broader base of voters.

“Under a ranked-choice voting system, now your political strategy changes,” said Vargas, a freshman Democrat. “It’s no longer about, ‘How do I speak to that 20 percent that I need to turn out?’ … As opposed to, ‘Hey, I could be someone’s second choice. I could be someone’s third choice… so I have to speak to a wider base.’"

Vargas also argued that by ranking candidates, you can vote your conscience for a third-party candidate without fearing you’re throwing your vote away.

The first big taste of the ranked-choice system happened in Maine in November 2018. It didn’t end well for incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin.

“I got the most votes,” Poliquin told WBUR. “I got 2,200 more votes than my other three liberal opponents, but the seat was awarded nine days later, after all this confusion, to the individual who came in second.”

Poliquin got more No. 1 votes than Democrat Jared Golden, but he didn’t reach the 50 percent threshold. So, voters’ subsequent choices came into play, and eventually, Golden surpassed Poliquin and won.

Poliquin said ranked-choice voting was established by out-of-state liberals looking to “stack the deck” and secure power for Democrats in Maine.
Jason Sorens, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, backed Poliquin’s claim that ranked-choice is more likely to favor Democrats. Sorens argued that’s because more third-party voters are likely to lean toward supporting Democrats. (Libertarians tend to split between supporting Democrats and Republicans, Sorens explained, while Greens mostly support Democrats.)

“There really aren’t any strong conservative third parties,” he said. “So, ranked-choice voting, by eliminating the spoiler problem, makes it so that those Green [Party] voters can also cast a vote for Democrats. And there’s no compensating advantage in most places for Republicans.”

Other opponents of ranked-choice voting say it’s confusing and complicated — and on those grounds it was vetoed twice by Democratic governors of California, both the current governor, Gavin Newsom, and his predecessor Jerry Brown.

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a Boston-based conservative group, is the most vocal opponent of ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts. Spokesman Paul Craney said the system is unfair because it forces voters to conduct theoretical head-to-head matchups when ranking candidates.

“Runoff elections would work fine, where there would be a second election day and the highest two vote-getters would advance to that,” Craney said. “That allows the voters the ability — which ranked-choice, or instant-runoff voting, doesn’t allow you — to have an understanding of who the final two [candidates] are to make the determinations.”

But proponents of ranked-choice voting say runoff elections not only cost more money, but also result in lower turnout.

Erin O’Brien, a professor of political science at UMass Boston, said she welcomes a system that allows voters to express more nuance at the ballot box. She added that ranked-choice voting could also lead to less negative campaigning.

“It gets harder to get personal,” O’Brien said. “If you talk trash about me, my cousin’s less apt to vote for you. But if you bring up some substantive issues, my cousin is like, ‘They just disagreed. You’re not a bad person. I’ll put you second.’ “

Still, O’Brien recognized that some stand to lose by changing the electoral rules. “When you change the rules of the game,” she said, “those that are currently benefiting from it are the ones who tend to hold onto the existing game.”

Both liberals and conservatives could eventually be affected by a change to the current voting system, but, O’Brien said, regardless of who benefits, ranked-choice voting helps ensure that more popular candidates win.

This story was published by WBUR 90.9FM on January 7. The Reporter and WBUR share content through a media partnership.

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