By JohnCarl McGrady
In Massachusetts, it can seem like your vote doesn’t matter outside of primaries. A Democrat will win the presidential contest, the Senate contest, and your district’s House contest, and Charlie Baker will coast to re-election in the years when he is on the ticket.
That, however, ignores the ballot initiatives. Every election, there are some questions sent to voters as referendums which can affect statewide policy for decades to come. This year, there are two ballot questions, by far the more important of which is question two.
Massachusetts’ ballot initiative two asks voters whether they approve of a proposed law to “implement a voting system known as ‘ranked‑choice voting,’ in which voters rank one or more candidates by order of preference,” and if you are voting in Massachusetts, it’s the most important thing you will be voting on this November. Of course, no single electoral reform will save democracy, but ranked-choice voting (RCV) would be a massive step, as it would prevent spoiled elections, free up people to vote their conscience, and decrease poisonous partisanship.
First, let’s explain what RCV is. In the voting system we have now, you fill in one bubble next to the candidate you support, and that candidate gets your vote. In RCV, you put a 1 next to the candidate you most support, a 2 next to your second choice, and so on. If you don’t want to put a number next to a certain candidate, you are not obliged to. In fact, you are more than free to simply put a 1 next to your top choice, and be done. If you pick that option, RCV won’t change anything for you.
After this, the first-choice votes are tallied. If no candidate receives over 50% of first-choice votes, then the candidate who received the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and the votes that were initially cast for them are redistributed to those voters’ second-choice candidate. This process is repeated until one candidate has fifty percent of the vote, or only two candidates remain.
This guarantees that a candidate will never be elected with less support than one of their opponents. Imagine a hypothetical election with four candidates running for a single seat in a given congressional district: Grey, Blue, Green, and Yellow. Grey wins 30% of the vote, Blue 25%, Green 23%, and Yellow 22%. In our current system, Grey would win the election and represent 100% of voters in the district, even though he only got the support of 30%.
But now imagine that this district there is a big divide in the voting patterns between people who vote for colours, and people who vote for shades of grey, and everyone who voted for Blue, Green, or Yellow would rather have any of those three candidates represent them than Grey. If voters were reassigned, Green would end up winning with 70% of the vote. In real life, it’s not usually this dramatic, but candidates with similar ideologies have spoiled the race for each other in the past.
While I’m skeptical of theories that Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein affected the result of the 2016 general election, there are presidential elections where candidates with similar ideologies have spoiled each other’s chances of winning the election. For example, William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican vote in 1912, an election they should have won with room to spare against Woodrow Wilson.
We don’t have to delve so deep into history to find examples of spoiled elections, however. In fact, there was one this year, in Massachusetts, that is so extreme it almost sounds made up. In Massachusetts’ fourth district, nine contenders received over 1% of the vote in the Democratic primary for U.S House Representative. Of them, 8 were progressives. Then there was Jake Auchincloss, a former Republican and moderate.
Auchincloss won with a mere 22.4% of the vote, defeating progressive Jesse Mermell by a mere 1.3%. He won with the support of less than one-fourth of voters. Auchincloss will now represent a district that voted against him more than three to one! Now, we can only speculate on what a one vs. one race between Auchincloss and Mermell would have looked like, but it’s worth noting that in the Senate primary, Ed Markey, who ran to Mermell’s left, defeated Joe Kennedy, who ran to Auchincloss’ left, in the district, despite it being Kennedy’s home district. It’s hard to imagine any scenario that would end with Auchincloss winning a one vs. one election against Mermell, or any of the other major challengers—or even coming close.
In our system, he didn’t have to. He didn’t even need a quarter of the district to like him to win. Under RCV, he would need to actually have majority support to win.
But maybe you see Auchincloss and Wilson as strategically insightful and don’t have a problem with the fact that the more unpopular candidate won. Well, there are other reasons to support RCV.
For example, it lets you vote your conscience. With our current system, if you want to have a say in who will represent you, you have to choose between voting for the top two polling candidates, in general elections usually a Republican candidate and a Democratic candidate, even if you don’t like either of them. If you prefer the Libertarian candidate, or the Green-Rainbow candidate, or an independent candidate, you can’t vote for them if you want your vote to matter.
Lots of voters in 2016 disliked both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but voted for one of the two anyway. Wouldn’t it have been better if they could have voted for a candidate they truly supported?
Massachusetts passing RCV won’t directly have a major impact on presidential elections, but it will affect races like Massachusetts’ fourth district and could serve to start toppling the dominoes around the country and make more states pass this proposal. Maine already has RCV, and it’s on the ballot this year in Alaska as well. RCV could, in fact, decide who wins Maine’s Senate race this year, if Susan Collins and Sara Gideon end up finishing very close, which would make it the first American federal election decided by RCV.
And there is yet another reason to support RCV.
Our country has become incredibly partisan, even as people have come to detest parties more. According to the Washington Post, the percent of “split-ticket” voters, or voters who voted for different parties in different races, declined from over 35% in 1994 to barely 10% in 2014, and it’s only declined since then. Meanwhile, the average support for a party nominee from its own voters has also dropped. How is this possible?
People are increasingly voting against the opposition candidate, rather than for the candidate they support. In the last three presidential elections, 5 of 6 candidates have had negative favourability. Most people aren’t even in a party that agrees with them on many issues; two parties are not enough to contain most people’s political preferences, but we don’t have a choice. We’re locked into a death spiral of hyper-partisanship, voting for candidates who don’t even have to try to appeal to us; they only need to be less awful to us than the opposition.
RCV ends that.
With RCV, you can vote for who you support. If one party isn’t responding to its constituents, voters can vote for a similar, smaller party. If they protest in vain, then their original party will still get their votes, but enough people protest, then the smaller party could replace the larger one, forcing the parties to adapt and change, forcing them to support what you support.
So if you want candidates to be free to run for office, if you want to be able to vote for candidates you support, or if you want political parties to share your views and nominate politicians you support, vote yes on two.
Support ranked choice voting.