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As we near the end of an exhausting election cycle, it’s hard to blame anyone who feels inclined to dabble in electoral reform. Massachusetts voters will soon get their opportunity with Ballot Question 2, a proposal to adopt ranked-choice voting in most races across the state. A “Yes” victory will fundamentally change the way our state gets to choose its elected officials.
Under the current system, known as “first-past-the-post” to academics who study elections, voters select one candidate each, and the election winner is the person who receives the most votes. If there are more than two candidates, the winner may end up with less than 50 percent support, often by a considerable margin: In 2018, Representative Lori A. L. Trahan (D-Mass.) won the election for Massachusetts’s Third Congressional seat after earning less than 22 percent of the vote in a fractured Democratic primary that saw 10 candidates compete.
Under the proposed system, voters will be asked to rank the candidates in order of preference, including as few or as many as they like. If one candidate earns more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, they will be declared the winner. Otherwise, votes will be redistributed in successive rounds until one candidate has majority support. In each round, the candidate with the fewest top-place rankings is eliminated, and their votes are awarded to the next ranked candidate on their supporters’ ballots.
On the Yes side is Voter Choice for Massachusetts, which contends that democracy requires a voting algorithm that enacts a majority, rather than a plurality, rule. They point to races like that won by Rep. Trahan in the third district, estimating that up to 40 percent of contested elections with at least three candidates are won with no candidate achieving a simple majority. As a normal feature of the system — this year, it happened again — this seems sub-optimal. Ranked-choice voting is a safeguard against minority rule that will do away with coalition-splitting and spoiler candidates, and ensure that widely disfavored candidates cannot ride into office on the backs of a slim but vocal minority.
But ranked-choice voting is about much more than majority rule. It’s about overhauling the tone and tenor of electoral politics. In anticipation of having to rank the candidates, voters are encouraged to engage with multiple campaigns rather than selecting one champion and ignoring the rest. On the candidate side, ranked-choice voting encourages campaigns to focus on positive messaging as they vie for higher rankings: Trashing a voter’s first-place candidate isn’t a good strategy if you want to earn a second-place vote that might decide the election. When the votes are counted, 50 percent of the electorate will have expressed some kind of support for the winner, which should serve to reduce disillusionment among voters whose first-choice candidate is unsuccessful and increase politicians’ sense of accountability to the wider electorate.
Opponents contend that the proposed system is too confusing for voters. Sitting in the cradle of ranked-choice voting — Cambridge has used preference rankings since 1941, longer than any other jurisdiction in the country — we find this argument baffling. Ranked-choice voting is arguably easier than normal voting, since voters are free to rank their actual, honest preferences, with no regard for strategic considerations like “electability” or trying to guess how other segments of the electorate will vote. Undergraduates have a double familiarity with preference rankings: Harvard’s Undergraduate Council is one of over 50 college student governments in the U.S. whose elections are conducted with a variant of ranked-choice voting. We have confidence that our standardized test-obsessed education system has more than adequately prepared the electorate to properly bubble in a list of preferences.
Ranked-choice voting is back in the national conversation on electoral reform. Cambridge voters have set the stage for similar systems in municipalities like San Francisco, Minneapolis, and New York City, and state-level experiments are underway in Maine and the five states that allowed ranked-choice voting in Democratic primaries this spring. It’s time for Massachusetts to join the movement. Vote Yes on Ballot Question Two.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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