Weighing the pros and cons of Question 2: Ranked choice voting

  • Voters check in to vote in June at Ralph C. Mahar Regional School in Orange. Town Clerk Nancy Blackmer said several residents have asked her about how ranked choice voting would work, but that she hasn’t received guidance from the Secretary of State’s Office to inform her how election workers’ jobs would be changed. Staff File Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 10/22/2020 10:17:02 AM
Modified: 10/22/2020 10:16:54 AM

Editor’s Note: This is the second story about ballot questions — some of which are statewide, and others are local — that voters will consider in the Nov. 3 general election.

Ranked choice voting, an alternative system for voting and counting ballots, could be coming to Massachusetts, depending on the results of the Nov. 3 election.

If passed, the new law proposed in ballot Question 2 would establish ranked choice voting as the system for all state elections — including state government offices and Massachusetts’ delegation to Congress — but not for municipal elections or presidential elections.

In ranked choice voting, voters list candidates in order of preference — a first choice, a second choice backup, and so on. To win, a leading candidate must achieve a true majority — at least 50 percent of the votes. If no candidate wins a true majority, then the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Then, all votes for that eliminated candidate go instead to the voters’ next choices. That process repeats until a candidate wins a true majority.

Advocates of ranked choice voting say that America’s current system encourages candidates to strive to differentiate themselves and attack one another, rather than to seek common ground; and that it discourages voters from supporting candidates who seem not to have mass appeal. Ranked choice voting, its advocates say, solves those problems.

By contrast, critics say that ranked choice voting is too complicated, and potentially confusing for voters; and that there are other forms of voting that would be better alternatives to the current system.

How elections work now

Our current system is sometimes called “plurality voting.” Each voter selects exactly one candidate to support. The winner is the candidate with more votes than any other.

Notably, in plurality voting, whenever there are more than two candidates, the winner does not need the support of a true majority. A candidate only needs the largest plurality of votes, sometimes called a relative majority.

A phenomenon called the vote-splitting effect — in which similar candidates pull votes from one another, diminishing the voting power of groups that are actually voting in similar ways — is often cited as an inherent flaw in plurality voting, and one of the key problems that ranked choice voting theoretically solves.

Closely related is what’s known as the spoiler effect, in which a similar candidate splits the vote just enough to prevent an otherwise popular candidate from winning the election, creating a victory for a candidate whose platform may be less popular, but whose support was not split.

In the 2000 presidential election, for example, the candidacy of the Democrat Al Gore was arguably spoiled by Ralph Nader, whose platform was generally considered to be similar to the Democratic Party’s. The winner was George W. Bush, whose Republican platform did not resemble Gore’s or Nader’s relatively similar platforms.

“This system doesn’t really adapt to the presence of more than two candidates,” said Greg Dennis, the policy director of Voter Choice for Massachusetts, which provided the opinion in favor of ranked choice voting in an informational mailer sent to voters across the state. “As soon as you get a third candidate, there’s this vote-splitting effect. If we want more than two choices, we have the wrong system for that.”

Voters are conscious of the potential for splitting and spoiling in plurality voting. And they tend to vote accordingly, Dennis said, in a kind of bad-faith strategizing to determine which candidate has the potential to achieve enough votes to win.

“People are conditioned to vote strategically,” he said. “Going into the voting booth and voting their conscience and their heart is a foreign concept. ... (Ranked choice voting) is a rare case where honesty is the best policy, going into the voting booth.”

Diversity among elected officials tends to increase in ranked choice voting, Dennis said. Because voters aren’t as motivated to align themselves with the plurality that they imagine to be largest, they are more likely to take a chance on a candidate.

Too complicated?

Confusion among voters is apparently a real problem, however. Nancy Blackmer, the town clerk of Orange, said that several residents have asked her about how ranked choice voting would work. The Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections, hasn’t given any guidance for election workers yet, she said.

“I’ve talked to a number of people, voters locally, who are totally confused with it,” she said. “They’re concerned how the machines are going to count it, and how the election workers are going to count it, and I can’t answer.”

Advocates say that, in practice, ranked choice voting is intuitive, even if the underlying rules may be technically complicated.

“You go into an ice cream store, and if they don’t have your favorite flavor, you pick another one,” noted Laurie Johnson, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts.

Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, which has argued that ranked choice voting is too complicated for the average voter, said the ice cream metaphor isn’t adequate. Voting requires research, which is time and effort, he said.

“I constantly hear the ranked choice people saying, ‘It’s just like choosing your flavor of ice cream,’” Craney said. “(Voting) is not about ranking flavors. It’s about trying all the flavors, and then ranking them. For the average voter, that’s just another layer of confusion and burden.”

Ranked choice voting is an instant runoff system — when no candidate achieves a true majority, a “runoff” is triggered, and the results are instantly recalculated based on voters’ submitted rankings.

Craney favors a regular runoff election, which still requires the winner to achieve a true majority, but isn’t calculated instantly. Instead, after the lowest scoring candidate is eliminated, a second election is held. He argued it gives candidates a chance to recalibrate their platforms, and it doesn’t have the potential to confuse voters that ranked choice voting may have.

“You don’t want to confuse people,” he said. “At the end of the day, you just want to keep the stuff very simple for people. You don’t want to overcomplicate it.”

A “yes” vote on Question 2 is a vote to establish the ranked choice voting system. A “no” vote is a vote to keep the current system.

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-930-4231.

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