Question 2 on the Massachusetts ballot would provide voters the opportunity to rank their preferences in a multi-candidate field. The option would apply in primaries and general elections for state offices, legislative districts, and federal congressional offices but not for president, county or regional school district committee members. It’s less complicated than it sounds, and it would mean the election of candidates with a broader base of support………more acceptable to more people.
Take September’s Democratic primary to fill the 4th district seat in Congress, vacated by Joe Kennedy in his unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate. The 4th C.D. primary had eight candidates on the ballot. Two had actually withdrawn, throwing their “support” to Jesse Mermell. Jake Auchincloss won the race with just 22 percent of the vote. Mermell was second with 21 percent, 2033 votes behind Auchincloss. Newton City Councilor Becky Grossman received 18%. Natalia Linos received 12%, and Ihssane Leckey received 11%. No other candidate received more than 10% of the vote. Because of the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, Auchincloss will likely become the next Congressman in November’s general election, though four of every five primary voters preferred someone else. In Maine’s 2nd District in 2018, Democrat Jared Golden became the first member of Congress elected by ranked choice voting. He defeated Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin, who failed to get a majority of suppport. A federal court upheld the outcome.
With ranked choice voting, a candidate would have to win 50 percent + 1 of the votes to win. Without that majority, there would be successive rounds to eliminate the candidate in last place, distributing his or her votes to the second choices on those ballots. So the 14, 305 votes for last- place candidate Alan Khazei would have been distributed among the other candidates based on the second choices of voters who preferred the losing Khazei above all others. The process of eliminating the last candidate would continue until one of the remaining candidates topped 50 percent of the vote.
Ranked choice voting would mean that a voter wouldn’t strategically have to abandon a genuinely preferred candidate to go with another with a greater perceived chance of winning. Candidates could be less likely to mount a narrow, negative attack to edge out another candidate because he or she would want to be the second choices of other voters. The outcome might be less easily manipulated by a moneyed special interest group able to underwrite a candidate needing just a slice of the electorate. Ultimately, the winner would reflect a broader consensus.
Having simple plurality winners is nothing new. In 2018, Rep. Lori Trahan won with less than 22 percent in the 3rd District. Five years before that, Rep. Katherine Clark won with under 32 percent. And, in 1998, former Rep. Mike Capuano received just 23 percent. But in today’s environment of hyper-divisive politics and killer campaigns, post-election governance could benefit mightily from a selection process that yields more consensus.
Critics assert than ranked choice voting would put too much of a burden on voters to discern differences in a multi-candidate field. But that can be overcome by amping up voter education. Where ranked choice voting has been tried, it has been generally successful. No system is 100 percent flawless, MassInc poll showing split opinion reflects voter sentiment on the referendum. My sense is that giving voters the ability to rank their choices would be a solid step forward. For me, it’s Yes on 2.
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