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Massachusetts and Alaska are voting on a radical change to how we run elections

Both states are deciding whether to implement ranked choice voting, where voters rank their preferred candidates in order of preference. Advocates say it gives outsider candidates more of a chance—and depolarizes elections.

Massachusetts and Alaska are voting on a radical change to how we run elections
[Illustration: Daniel Salo]
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When voters in Massachusetts and Alaska cast their ballots in this election, they’re not only voting on the next president or any local offices. They’re voting on an entirely different way to vote in future elections—one that experts say, if passed, could help depolarize our politics.

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Massachusetts and Alaska each have a ballot question this year proposing ranked choice voting (RCV), which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference rather than casting a single vote for one person. If a candidate is the top choice on a majority of ballots, they win. If not, the candidate who had the fewest top-spot votes is eliminated, and the voters who had that losing candidate in their top spot then have their second-choice candidate counted in a second round of voting. That process for counting votes keeps going until there’s a candidate who gets more than 50% of votes in a subsequent round.

That way, RCV supporters say, a winner actually reflects the active preference of a majority of voters. In our current electoral system, third-party or moderate candidates never really stand a chance, and a vote for one is often seen as a waste—or worse, a spoiler, splitting the vote on one side of the aisle and giving the win to the other party.

In some cases, that has meant a candidate wins by plurality—meaning they have more votes than the other candidates—but without a majority—meaning less than half of the total electorate actually chose that person. Republican Charlie Baker won his seat as Massachusetts governor in 2014 with 48.4% of the vote. In 2010, Republican Paul LePage became the governor of Maine with just 37% of the vote. In primaries, where there are multiple choices for one party, votes can be even more fractured. In 2020, Democratic Congressional candidate Jake Auchincloss won the primary for Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District with only 22% of the vote.

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With RCV, voters have the option to put a third party or more fringe candidate as their first choice, if that’s who they truly want, and a major party or more widely backed candidate as their second, without fear of splitting the vote. “This means that people don’t have to settle for a choice that they’re not really happy with when they go into the ballot booth,” says Larry Diamond, a political sociologist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute. “They can vote their heart on the first choice and then rank another choice as their second, in case their first choice doesn’t make it.”

What these ballot measures mean for RCV nationwide

The use of ranked choice voting in the U.S. began at the city level. Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been using a form of RCV since 1941; Basalt, Colorado, adopted it in 2002 for mayoral elections. Bay Area cities were also early adopters, with San Leandro, California, adopting RCV in 2000, San Francisco in 2002, Berkeley in 2005, and Oakland in 2006. Voters in New York City voted to adopt it in 2019, and it’ll begin there in 2021. More than a dozen U.S. cities currently have RCV for at least some elections.

Now, it’s coming to the state level. Maine was the first state to pass ranked choice voting in 2016 (it was considered there as early as 2001, and LePage’s plurality win was thought to have helped reinvigorate that effort). 

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“The fact that in this next election cycle already, we’re seeing two more states put this question on the ballot shows that voters are interested in this issue, there is an appetite for this kind of reform, and more states are ready to make this change,” Otis says. Diamond agrees, noting that even one of these states passing this measure could give ranked choice voting more momentum across the country.

The ballot measures in Alaska and Massachusetts differ slightly. Alaska’s would implement something called “top-four,” where rather than each political party holding a primary, there’s one blanket primary for all candidates and voters pick their top four choices. The Massachusetts initiative would still allow for separate party primaries. Alaska’s initiative would also allow RCV for the presidential election; the one in Massachusetts does not. When Maine passed its RCV ballot measure, it didn’t initially include presidential elections, but that was added in 2019; it’s being used in the presidential election there this year.

That addition wasn’t passed in time to be used in Maine’s presidential primaries, but RCV was used in Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, a decision that came from those state’s Democratic parties. (Nevada also had RCV for the primary, but for absentee caucus voters only.) Ranked choice voting isn’t just a new idea to fix U.S. politics, either; it’s been used in Australia for more than 100 years, in the Republic of Ireland since 1921, and several other countries. Both Diamond and Otis are optimistic that the ballot measures in Alaska and Massachusetts will pass.

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What ranked choice voting means for democracy

The option to rank political candidates wouldn’t just change what happens on election day. It could, proponents say, transform the entire election cycle, change how divisive American politics are, increase voter participation, and allow for more minority representation in politics.

“One of the most important drivers of our political polarization in the country today is that two candidates face off in the general election as a result of having won their major party nominations in low turnout primaries,” Diamond says. “Think of who votes in a low turnout primary. It’s the people who are most highly motivated.” Political science research has shown, he adds, that these primary voters tend to be more conservative Republicans, and more liberal Democrats.

Primary voters, then, don’t fully represent all voters who lean toward a certain party, and so the chosen nominee doesn’t fully reflect the median voter of that region. “But because we have tribal politics,” Diamond adds, “their parties rally around them.”

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This cycle is hard to break, but Diamond thinks RCV could do it by giving voters more choice. Those who aren’t among the most highly motivated might then be drawn to the polls, because they’ll know their vote won’t just be a spoiler. There’s also research from the nonpartisan electoral reform nonprofit FairVote that shows RCV elections discourage negative campaigning, because running negative ads may hurt a candidate’s chances of being a voter’s second choice. Rather than only appealing to their base, candidates in RCV elections benefit from having broader appeal. “This helps each party put their best foot forward,” says Deb Otis, senior data analyst at FairVote and founding member of Voter Choice MA, the organization driving the Massachusetts RCV ballot initiative.

In 2018, RCV helped flip a Maine Congressional Seat. Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin (who landed that seat in 2014 with 45% of the vote), earned about 2,000 more votes than his challenger Democrat Jared Golden in the first round of tabulation, but he did not receive a majority of votes. Golden then won the second round in the instant runoff, earning votes from those who put him as their second and third choice after independent candidates, for a final vote of 50.53% to 49.47%.

By giving voters more options, RCV also increases the likelihood of women and people of color getting into office. With the adoption of RCV (though they call it Alternative Vote) in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro, the probability of a female candidate winning increased from 40% to 44.6%, at the same time that it decreased in control cities from 39% to 28%, according to FairVote. Per another analysis, candidates of color won 62% of RCV races in those cities, compared to 38% before it was implemented.

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“With our current system, sometimes candidates are told not to run, they’re told they might become a spoiler or they might hurt the candidate they’re most similar to, and we limit our choices,” Otis says. “With ranked choice voting, more candidates are welcomed into this conversation, including candidates who might appeal to a similar base, but both want to run and want to compete.”

Opponents of RCV have said it’s too confusing, that lower income or lower educated voters won’t be able to figure it out, and that it disenfranchised minority voters.  And there are a few places where RCV has been enacted, and then repealed. Ann Arbor, Michigan repealed it in 1976 in an effort launched by local Republicans who disputed its constitutionality (though a judge affirmed its legality) and who said it was confusing (though, per FairVote, a City Hall report found that voters didn’t have trouble filling ranked ballots). In 2013, North Carolina’s General Assembly repealed RCV, implemented in 2006 for judicial elections, as part of a House bill that included multiple election reforms, such as requiring voters to show identification at the polls. Voters in Aspen, Colorado, repealed instant runoff voting, a method of ranked choice, in 2010, but did choose to go back to a previous runoff voting system, rather than to a plurality system. Burlington, Vermont, repealed it in 2010 after the mayor who won via that method was then involved in multiple controversies; the repeal was seen as a judgment of his administration.

Both Diamond and Otis say that voters have had no trouble understanding how to rank their votes and most of the opposition comes from “special interests who benefit from our toxic and divisive election cycle, and so naturally these groups may oppose ranked choice voting,” Otis says, “But this system is about the voters.”

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Another argument, Diamond adds, is that “our two-party system is still working well, why mess with it?” “I think that’s a ridiculous argument,” he says. “I think that our system is so broken, we really have to try to reform it.” And in the grand scheme of election reforms, RCV is a cautious one; it’s not as radical, Diamond notes, as multi-member districts or proportional representation, and it wouldn’t eliminate political parties. “It’s a reform whose time is coming,” he says. “This can invigorate our democracy, depolarize our democracy, provide more choice, [and] make for more civil elections, and more civil and mutually respectful campaigns.”