Ranked choice far superior to top-two

California experiment managed to anger everybody

In “Let’s get off the ranked-choice bandwagon,” Paul Schlichtman argues that the growing calls for Massachusetts to adopt ranked choice voting are misguided. Instead of ranked choice, he wants our state to use the same top-two system as California. As the policy director for Voter Choice Massachusetts, the 26,000-member movement to enact ranked choice voting, I naturally disagree. Schlichtman’s argument reveals misunderstandings of the effects of these two systems when actually put into practice.

Political science professor David Faris was right to call California’s top-two experiment a debacle. Under top-two, all candidates, regardless of political party, compete in a single primary, and the two highest vote-getters face off in the general election, even if they are from the same party. An unfortunate consequence is that if too many candidates from the same party run, they can split the vote such that none of them reach the general election. Take the 2012 top-two primary in California’s 31st Congressional district, for example. Even though Democrats outnumber Republicans in that district, four Democratic candidates split the vote so evenly against two Republicans that no Democrat made it into the general. Republicans suffered a similar fate when they were shut out of the 2016 US Senate general election entirely.

The recurring threat of vote-splitting led the California Democratic Party to take the unseemly step of pressuring candidates not to run at all. Not only does top-two aggravate major parties with its “too many candidates” problem, it also undermines minor parties and independent candidates by excluding them from the general election entirely. Unlike ranked choice voting, which welcomes new voices and choices into our elections by eliminating the “spoiler” effect, top-two deprives voters of options in the final, decisive race, limiting the range of political discourse right when voter interest is at its peak.

Top-two has managed to anger just about everybody, and not just in California. As we at Voter Choice criss-cross the state, giving hundreds of talks from the Cape to the Berkshires, virtually everyone who brings up top-two is already dead-set against it: Democrats and Republicans, third-parties and independents, average voters and legislators. It has no political future here, even if it were good policy (which it isn’t).

Schlichtman is certainly right that too many Massachusetts elections are uncompetitive today. (We rank dead last in the competitiveness of State House races.) But he fails to acknowledge that ranked choice voting is itself a tool to bring more voices and choices into our elections and enhance competition throughout the process. By removing the threat of vote-splitting, ranked choice voting doesn’t just ensure the winner has a broad base of support — it encourages more candidates to run in the first place.

Schlichtman is also wrong to downplay the problem of candidates winning in our state without a majority of the vote. On the contrary, it is because of our uncompetitive elections that when a seat does open up, everyone who ever considered running sees the election as the rare opportunity it is. Then the vote is split so many ways the winner fails to secure anywhere near a mandate, as happened in the Massachusetts 3rd Congressional primary last year, where 10 candidates resulted in a winner with less than 22 percent of the vote. In fact, of all state elections in Massachusetts with three or more candidates over the past 20 years, 43 percent of them were won with less than a majority, according to data compiled from PD43+.

Meet the Author

Greg Dennis

Policy director, Voter Choice Massachusetts
All of this is not to say that an open primary is fundamentally incompatible with ranked choice voting. Approaches that combine open primaries and ranked choice voting are possible, such as the “top four” scheme recently proposed by legislators in Wyoming. Voter Choice Massachusetts takes no position on such hybrid proposals, but what their advocates realize, and Schlichtman does not, is that far from being an alternative to ranked choice voting, any open primary needs ranked choice voting to be successful, to avoid the unintended consequences that have plagued top-two. Pursuing an open primary in the absence of ranked choice voting would be bad policy, and even worse politics.

Greg Dennis is the policy director for Voter Choice Massachusetts