Mass. primary: What ranked choice voting would have meant

Voters could have selected multiple candidates

VOTERS ACROSS MASSACHUSETTS approached last week’s presidential primary with different views on whom to support and what issues are most critical to address this election season. Yet many shared a common emotion: frustration at a system that stifles their voice by giving them only one choice, especially with over a dozen on the ballot.

This was especially problematic for some of the 190,000 voters who cast their ballots early in the Democratic primary. Three candidates – Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Tom Steyer – dropped out of the race after early voting closed but before Tuesday. More than 60,000 voters cast ballots for one of these candidates, with those who voted early seeing their vote essentially forfeited.

Even with the field narrowed by Election Day, many wrestled with difficult decisions about how to use their one choice. Should they back the candidate they like best or would that just help their least favorite candidate? What’s the most strategic vote? Many remained undecided until the last minute, hoping for guidance from the latest opinion polls. According to exit polls, more than half of those voting on Tuesday didn’t decide on a candidate until that day or just a few days before.

Voters in other states and in other democracies around the world know there is a better way: ranked choice voting.

With ranked choice voting, voters aren’t forced to choose a single candidate. Instead, when there are multiple people running, voters are given the option to rank candidates in the order they prefer them – first, second, third, etc.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-place vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and votes for that candidate are immediately transferred to each voter’s next-ranked candidate. This repeats until a candidate receives a majority of the vote and wins. If a voter wanted to cast a ballot just for one candidate, like they do now, they could and their vote would be counted just as it is now.

Think of the difference this simple change would make for voters, for candidates, for parties, and for our democracy.

Voters could be confident that if their favorite candidate can’t win, their second or third choice would still count toward determining the winner. Candidates wouldn’t be pressured to bow out early to avoid splitting the vote. Party primaries could be relied on to produce a candidate with broad support. We’d see more civility on the campaign trail since candidates would need to appeal to voters outside of their base, including those backing their opponents.

Ranked choice voting has been adopted or enacted for political elections in over 20 states and will be used for the Democratic primaries in five states this year. In November, New York City passed ranked choice voting with 72 percent support. Up north, ranked choice voting is used for statewide elections in Maine and it’s working exactly as it’s supposed to –ensuring candidates are elected with a majority of the vote. In fact, the first ranked choice voting election in Maine resulted in increased turnout, with nearly 90 percent of the voters choosing to rank their ballots.

Massachusetts has the opportunity to adopt ranked choice voting in time for the 2022 midterms. This session, legislation (H.719 and S.414) was filed with the support of nearly 70 representatives and senators to implement ranked choice voting for nearly all state and federal elections. The bills are currently under consideration by the Joint Committee on Election Laws, which has until April 30 to report them out favorability in time for a debate and vote before the end of the legislative session in July.

We need to recognize that the crowded presidential primaries of 2016 and 2020 are not outliers. Elections for open seats at all levels are seeing significantly more candidates.

In the 2018 midterms, 146 US House primaries had five or more candidates, including the open Democratic primary in our Third Congressional District. With 10 candidates on the ballot, the winner was elected with only 21.6 percent of the vote. Voters in the Fourth District will be the next to face a difficult choice of picking one candidate in an ever-growing field of candidates running in the open Democratic primary.

Research has found that members of Congress who entered the House after winning a primary with 35 percent or less are significantly more partisan on average than those who won their primary with majority support. In other words, the mechanics of how we vote help create the growing extremism we all decry.

Meet the Author

Kevin Johnson

Executive director, Election Reformers Network
Meet the Author

Mac D'Allessandro

Executive director, Voter Choice for Massachusetts
In recent years, the Massachusetts Legislature has made major strides on election reform, including moving forward on early voting, online voter registration, and automatic registration. Now the Legislature should pass legislation to bring ranked choice voting to state and federal elections to give voters more choice and a stronger voice in time for the crowded elections of 2022 and beyond.

Kevin Johnson is the founder and executive director of Election Reformers Network and Mac D’Alessandro is the executive director of Voter Choice for Massachusetts, the campaign working to bring ranked choice voting to Massachusetts.