Boston needs ranked choice voting

City Council should start the process of reforming elections for the better

I RECENTLY VISITED a youth summer program organized by Ranked Choice Boston, a new coalition aiming to bring ranked choice voting to the City of Boston’s elections. The campaign officially kicks off August 16 with the goal of convincing the City Council to pass a home rule petition adopting RCV in 2024.

The students and I didn’t need to look far to figure out why RCV would be beneficial to Bostonians. We met in Dorchester’s Little Saigon neighborhood, which sits in City Council District 3, represented by Frank Baker. Baker was elected in 2011 in a runoff election following the preliminary election which was rife with possibilities for vote-splitting and spoilers and might have undeservedly sent Baker and his opponent to the runoff.

This is one of the dangers of plurality (or first-past-the-post or winner-take-all) voting, the familiar system where voters simply select their top choice. It takes so little information from the voters that it is blind to any nuance in their preferences, and the method’s mistaken view of the will of the people can easily propagate to the runoff round.

The 2021 Boston mayoral election was historic, with 95 percent of voters casting their ballots for a woman of color in the preliminary for the city’s highest office. But even this contest could not escape plurality’s systemic flaws. It is likely that Andrea Campbell and Kim Janey, two Black women candidates, split the vote, meaning that each of them was possibly more deserving of a spot in the runoff than Annissa Essaibi George. If Campbell or Janey made it to the runoff, the general election would have reflected the preference of more voters, providing a healthy and competitive challenge that no doubt both Michelle Wu and the city’s electorate would have welcomed.

The peril is even more glaring in the elections of the four at-large Boston City Council members. All Boston voters select up to four names out of the pool of candidates. With this procedure, a contingent of voters can force all the winners to be candidates of their choosing. Such was recently the case in Lowell, where Asian and Latino residents were shut out of representation on the City Council and the School Committee because of bloc voting by white voters. (Following a 2017 lawsuit, Lowell changed the way it conducts its elections.)

Frank Baker, who has been representing District 3 since 2011, easily won all his reelection bids (several of which were uncontested). Such cushy incumbency victories are also symptomatic of plurality’s flaws. The bar for unseating someone with name recognition and an established campaign and political network is dauntingly high and few attempt to reach it. The reigning status quo’s first victims are a diversity of opinion and political engagement.

RCV can solve these problems. Voters rank as many choices as they want. If there is no majority winner, the candidate with the least number of first place votes is eliminated and their votes are transferred to the next choice on each ballot. The process continues until there is a majority winner, capturing the intention of the electorate in a much more comprehensive way than plurality. The mathematical principle at hand is simple – with more information taken from the voters, the algorithm can better tease out the subtleties of the election.

RCV eliminates vote-splitting and spoilers. It prevents “wasted votes”; everyone can rank their favorite freely because, even if their top choice is eliminated, the ranked ballot will continue to contribute with the subsequent selections.

The method also eliminates the need for the costly, lower-turnout runoff elections since it conducts an automated series of runoffs among the candidates still standing after each elimination round (this is why RCV is also called instant runoff). A version of RCV for multi-winner elections (aka proportional ranked choice or single transferable vote), such as the election of Boston’s at-large councilors, prevents bloc voting and ensures that the benefits or RCV carry over into that setting.

Over the last year, the beleaguered Boston City Council had been squabbling over redistricting, providing a distressing reminder of the city’s economic and racial divisions. Adopting RCV would not only improve the Council’s image but would ensure that this body is representative and as diverse as the Boston residents it speaks for.

RCV’s implementation in Boston is within reach. Mayor Wu had in the past indicated support for it, as have 62 percent of Boston voters during the failed 2020 statewide RCV ballot question effort. Reflecting on that campaign, the students in the summer program agreed that, had the pandemic not forestalled the ability to educate Massachusetts voters about the benefits of RCV, things would have turned out very differently. After all, they told me, once they learned about how RCV works, they had no doubt that this was the way to go. Let’s hope the Boston City Council agrees.

Ismar Volić is a professor of mathematics at Wellesley College and the director of the Institute for Mathematics and Democracy. His book Making Democracy Count: How Mathematics Improves Voting, Electoral Maps, and Representation will be published in March 2024.