Let’s get off the ranked choice bandwagon

Voting method not suited to one-and-a-half party state

CONGRATULATIONS to US Rep. Jared Golden, who defeated incumbent Republican congressman Bruce Poliquin through the magic of ranked-choice voting. Poliquin had the lead after the first count last November, with 46.4 percent of the vote, but transfers of ballots from independent candidates moved the race toward Golden, who prevailed with the support of 50.5 percent of voters.

“How wonderful! How democratic!” Golden’s victory prompted a growing chorus singing the praises of ranked choice voting, but it’s not the panacea supporters proclaim. It’s a solution in search of a problem unaligned with the challenges we face in Massachusetts.

There are significant differences between the political terrain in Massachusetts and Maine. Maine has two vibrant political parties, and a tradition of viable and winning candidates outside the two-party structure. Paul LePage was elected governor of Maine in 2010 with 37.6 percent of the vote, while Democrat Libby Mitchell (18.8 percent) finished third behind independent Eliot Cutler.

Massachusetts doesn’t have a Paul LePage problem. Massachusetts has the opposite problem. Massachusetts is a one-and-a-half-party state.

In much the same way as the California GOP has been described as “on life support” or worse, Massachusetts Republicans have a history of successfully contesting the corner office and not much else. The state Democratic Party is so ideologically broad as to put Nika Elugardo in the same caucus with David Nangle; the only thing they have in common is their uncontested general elections last November.

We had 103 out of 160 state representatives, 34 out of 40 state senators, and four out of nine members of Congress unopposed in last November’s election. Ranked-choice voting might be fun and trendy, but it lacks a certain charm when you are ranking only one candidate.

Our contested congressional contests weren’t suspenseful. The closest we had to squeakers were US Reps. Bill Keating (19.3 percentage-point victory margin) and Lori Trahan (28.5 percentage-point margin) winning sleepy general elections.

Trahan gained her place on the November ballot by winning 21.7 percent of the vote in a 10-candidate Democratic primary, making her the poster child for ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts. She eliminated nine Democrats from contention, including several Democrats who would have been viable challengers in a head-to-head race in November.

For the rare occasions when multiple candidates are viable in an election, they are most likely to be competing in the same party primary, and we would be better served if we can find a way to get the two strongest contenders on the ballot for the general election.

Fortunately, we can look to other states in similar situations as Massachusetts. Kristin Olsen, the vice-chair of the California Republican Party, wrote in November that “the California Republican Party isn’t salvageable at this time… partly because it has failed to separate itself from today’s toxic, national brand of Republican politics.” This statement is far more aligned with Massachusetts as opposed to the risk of a small minority electing the equivalent of Paul LePage to statewide office.

Meet the Author

Paul Schlichtman

Town Meeting, School Committee, Democratic Town Committee, Arlington
California has an open “top two” primary system, designed to provide a pair of meaningful choices on the general election ballot. All candidates, regardless of party, appear on one primary ballot. All voters can participate in the primary, and the top two candidates advance to the general election. If there’s no viable Republican, two Democrats could advance. Fringe candidates are eliminated in the primary, providing there are two viable candidates in the race. With only two candidates on the general election ballot, the winner is guaranteed to gain a majority of votes on Election Day.

Some critics argue that open “top two” primaries would weaken the political party system. But in many ways our current system has already done that, giving folks an incentive to forego political enrollment in order to choose their ballot in contested primaries. In an open primary, candidates who want a party affiliation next to their name would need to be enrolled in that party, and parties could designate primary candidates in the way we currently hold caucuses and conventions for statewide offices. Of course, the presidential primaries and the selection of presidential electors could not be changed, but moving to an open “top two” system would result in more choices, and better choices, up and down ballots in the Commonwealth.

Paul Schlichtman is an 18-year member of the Arlington Democratic Town Committee, and an elected Town Meeting member and School Committee member in Arlington.