Despite $10m campaign, ranked-choice voting defeated

Republicans, including Gov. Baker, had opposed electoral switch

MASSACHUSETTS VOTERS on Tuesday decided not to adopt a ranked-choice voting system, a massive defeat for a nearly $10 million campaign that drew little organized opposition.

“Voters like a fair and simple system,” said Anthony Amore, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2018 and is active in the ranked-choice voting opposition. “Voters understand elections are fair and very basic — you go in and choose a preferred candidate and leave.” Amore said he thinks voters agreed that ranked choice voting is “unnecessarily complex” and “discriminates against a number of groups.”

Evan Falchuk, chairman of the ranked-choice voting campaign, said he is “deeply disappointed” but structural reform “is a marathon not a sprint.” He said changing the status quo, “especially during this pandemic,  is never an easy task.”

After midnight, with 77 percent of precincts reporting, 54 percent had voted against ranked-choice voting and 46 percent voted for it.

The ballot question would have made Massachusetts the second state in the US, after Maine, to elect its state and federal officials using ranked-choice voting, beginning in 2022.

Under ranked-choice voting, voters rank each candidate by preference, and a candidate who gets more than 50 percent of first-choice votes wins. If no candidate reaches that threshold, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and their ballots are recounted with the voter’s second choice. The process repeats until someone gets a majority.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting say it gives voters a greater voice by letting them choose more options, and ensures the nominee reflects the will of voters by avoiding vote-splitting among similar candidates. They say it opens doors for third party candidates.

Opponents counter that the system is confusing and disenfranchises less educated voters, who are more likely to mismark ballots or rank fewer candidates, resulting in their ballots being discounted before the final tally.

Gov. Charlie Baker came out against ranked-choice voting, saying it is too complicated for voters and election officials. Jim Lyons, the state Republican Party chair, said the proposal “seeks to turn losers into winners and unnecessarily complicate our electoral process.”

Robert Boatright, professor of political science at Clark University, said he believes Baker’s opposition mattered. And, he said, “I think there’s a long history of people believing that voters get easily confused by new election systems.”

Paul Craney, a spokesman for Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said voters “voted to protect the electoral process for future generations. Future elections will not result in more voter confusion and voter disenfranchisement as a result.”

The pro-ranked-choice voting ballot raised nearly $10 million, much of it from national donors. The Action Now Initiative, a national organization run by philanthropists John and Laura Arnold, gave $3.6 million. Kathryn Murdoch, who runs Quadrivium, which invests in social issues like climate change and election reforms, gave $2.5 million. A centrist political organization Murdoch is active in, Unite America, gave nearly $450,000. Panera’s former CEO Ronald Shaich, who lives in Brookline, gave $250,000, while Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter gave $450,000.

The pro-ranked-choice voting committee had support from some of the state’s most powerful Democrats: former Gov. Deval Patrick, US Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Attorney General Maura Healey, and six current members of Congress.

It also appeared to garner a boost after the state primary, when Democratic voters in the Fourth  Congressional District nominated Jake Auchincloss with 22.4 percent of the vote in a nine-person field. Jane Piercy, a Brookline software consultant who voted in that primary, said ranked-choice voting gives people more choice. “It helps make sure that the candidate that’s elected does represent the majority of people,” Piercy said. “Without it, we have candidates who can prevail with as little as 20 percent.”

In contrast, the opposition to ranked-choice voting was a shoestring operation, convened by members of the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, with just $3,500 in donations and no paid staff. Much of the opposition came from state Republicans.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones, a North Reading Republican who voted against ranked-choice voting, said Massachusetts already made changes to its voting system the last couple of years, like expanded mail-in and early voting, which should be evaluated before more changes are made. Jones worried there may be large costs involved in multiple ballot tallies, and said he wanted to hear more from town clerks about the impact on their workload.

Opponents of ranked-choice voting had also questioned whether it was constitutional and threatened to file a lawsuit if it passed.

With little funding, Amore said the opponents had to focus exclusively on their message, taking every opportunity to debate and do media interviews, no matter how small the audience. Amore said he thinks people were troubled by the fact that the ranked-choice voting committee “was funded primarily by billionaires with no connection to Massachusetts.”

Voters ultimately favored ranked-choice voting in Boston and its surrounding communities, including some of the wealthier suburbs; on parts of Cape Cod; and in parts of Western Massachusetts, including the city of Northampton and several rural communities. But voters opposed it in virtually the entire rest of the state, including the North and South Shores and Central Massachusetts.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Amel Ahmed, associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts  Amherst, said changes to the electoral system generally tend to be highly partisan and seen as a “zero sum” game, where one side wins and another loses. “You’re asking voters who had representatives elected under one system to choose to move to a different system with an uncertain future,” Ahmed said. Typically, she said, a reform cannot pass until it gets a critical mass of bipartisan support, which typically does not happen until there is “an obvious threat to both parties.”

In this case, Ahmed said, in a partisan fight where there has been relatively little voter education about ranked-choice voting, “I’d be surprised if people were not really hesitant about making such a dramatic change to all elections in Massachusetts.”