Ranked-choice voting can make a real difference in Massachusetts

Exhibit No.1 Debacle in Fall River

By Mac D’Alessanadro

Earlier this month, Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia was recalled and then re-elected – on the same day. Observers were stunned. But the will of voters has been thwarted in similar ways in communities throughout the commonwealth for decades.

The cause of such nonsensical outcomes as the debacle in Fall River? The “pick one” plurality voting system used in nearly all elections in Massachusetts and around the country, a system rife with flaws like “vote-splitting.” 

Fall River’s election is a textbook example of vote-splitting, where several candidates who have a similar stance — in this case, ousting Correia, who has been indicted in the federal courts on wire and tax fraud charges — divide the votes for that platform.

There’s no doubt that Fall River voters no longer support Correia, since more than 60 percent recalled him from office in the first part of the ballot. The second part of the ballot asked them to choose from five candidates, including Correia, for mayor. But those opposed to him split their votes among his four challengers. None of them alone had enough support to oust the deeply unpopular incumbent. As a result, Mayor Correia squeaked to victory with 35 percent of the vote.

This was a typical result of vote-splitting: The winner of an election won with less than a majority of support.

The solution to the problems associated with the current plurality voting system is a simple reform called ranked-choice voting. This system allows voters to rank candidates in the order in which they prefer them. If no candidate receives a majority of votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated. Ballots that favored that candidate then count for their second choice.

Bills to bring ranked-choice voting to Massachusetts has been introduced in the Legislature by Sens. Jason Lewis and Rebecca Rausch and Reps. Andy Vargas, Adrian Madaro, and Jennifer Benson. These bills would use ranked-choice voting for state primary and general elections, and let cities and towns adopt it more easily.

Massachusetts wouldn’t be taking a leap of faith if voters adopted ranked-choice voting. Almost four million Americans live in communities that use this system, including Oakland, California; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Closer to home, voters in Cambridge have used a variation of ranked-choice voting for city council and school board elections since 1941.

In 2016, Maine became the first state to enact ranked-choice voting for state and federal elections. Maine successfully used this system in the 2018 election cycle. At both the municipal and statewide level, ranked-choice voting has proven that it is possible to have a system whose results better reflect the will of voters.

As egregious as the Fall River election may be, such flawed results are far more pervasive than one might think. In the last 20 years of elections in Massachusetts, the rate at which winning candidates fail to achieve a majority of the vote — more than 50 percent — is staggeringly high.

For example, 60 percent of the winners of competitive races for governor, 44 percent of winning state representative candidates, and a whopping 89 percent of winning candidates for district attorney failed to earn a majority mandate from voters in either their primary or general election.

There are other, more insidious impacts that the current flawed system yields. Chief among them is the potential impact on voters’ future behavior. For example, Fall River voters likely woke up the day after the vote deeply disenchanted with the system that created such a perverse result. This disenchantment can lead to significant numbers of voters deciding that a system so incapable of reflecting the wishes of the majority is one that’s simply not worth participating in at all.

If ranked-choice voting were in place in Fall River, where no candidate had a majority, it would have allowed the votes for Erica Scott-Pacheco, who received just 5 percent of the vote, to transfer to voters’ second choice. This would have continued until one candidate surpassed 50 percent. That would probably have been one of Correia’s opponents, based on the recall vote. The wishes of 62 percent of the people would have been satisfied, instead of subverted by the “pick one” plurality voting system.

There are many other benefits to ranked-choice voting. Research has found that candidates run more positive campaigns, voters are more engaged, and cities can save money on preliminary elections. But as Fall River has shown, perhaps the biggest benefit of all is that the person voters want to elect will be the person who ends up in office.

Mac D’Alessandro is the state director for Voter Choice Massachusetts.This article was first published on March 21 by WBUR 90.9FM. WBUR and the Reporter have a partnership and share content and resources.