Ranked choice voting may be coming to Massachusetts

There’s a question on the ballot in Massachusetts this year that would adopt ranked-choice voting in the state if it’s approved. This rather undemocratic idea has been gaining traction in a number of places, particularly in the northeast over the past decade. (Maine adopted the system in 2015 and is still using it.) The rules for using this method can look a bit complicated at first glance, but the underlying principle is pretty simple. Instead of just voting for one candidate for any given office, voters select a first choice, a second choice, and so on for as many candidates as they wish to list. The lower-ranked options only come into play if no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes on the first round. (Boston Globe)

After centuries of residents picking one candidate per office, a question on November’s ballot proposes they instead rank their preferred choices in both primary and general elections for an array of elected seats. Should it pass, Massachusetts would have the second statewide — and most extensive — ranked-choice voting system in the country.

Implementing the new system would mean the person who receives the most first-place votes in a race with several candidates could, in fact, lose. If there is no candidate with a majority of votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and his or her voters’ second and subsequent choices are re-distributed.

Such a process, its supporters say, allows those with the broadest level of support to win, not just those who eke out a plurality. It also would fundamentally alter the state’s elections process when ballot access and representation are already under intense scrutiny.

The primary and most obvious objection to this system is based on the demonstrable fact that a person who receives the most votes in the first round of the election can go on to lose. It’s demonstrable because it’s already happened. In Maine, during the 2016 elections, GOP Congressman Bruce Poliquin lost his seat to Democrat Jared Golden after earning the most votes in the first round. Golden was apparently the second choice among voters who selected one of the two independent candidates running against them. Poliquin won the initial round of voting 49% to 42% over Golden, but when the two independent candidates were stripped away, Golden picked up enough additional votes to finish with 50.2%.

Under any normal system, Poliquin would have won that race by what most would consider a healthy, though not overwhelming margin. So the ranked-choice voting system obviously distorted the will of the voters in terms of who they really wanted to support. And that’s the entire point here. While ranked-choice voting may pass constitutional muster (somehow) for state and local elections, there is no requirement for anyone to obtain a solid majority of votes in order to win. In fact, the Constitution was written with multiple provisions in it regarding presidential elections with the clear expectation that more than two candidates would be running and how to handle the outcome in those scenarios.

In addition to that, previous studies have shown that ranked-choice voting can have a deleterious effect on female and minority candidates, so it’s tough to see why liberals support this so strongly. The theory behind that suggests that voters who select a White male candidate as their first choice will be more likely to pick another White male candidate as their second choice if one is available. So in a contested race where nobody reaches 50%, if a less popular White male candidate comes in last and is removed, the more popular White male candidate is more likely to be the benefactor from those reallocated votes.

In addition to that, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that most voters eventually settle on one candidate that they want to win any given election. They don’t necessarily even have a second choice that they’re happy with. But if everyone else is making multiple choices, they will probably feel pressured to fill in more blanks just so they don’t risk having their vote wasted. And if their preferred candidate gets knocked out in the first round, that vote will be wasted no matter what happens after that.

Isn’t voting complicated enough as it is, at least for some people? Do we really need to add yet another layer of complexity to the process? If the people of Massachusetts choose to follow this path, that’s up to them. But they may wind up regretting their decision in a couple of years.