Instant runoff voting could improve Boston elections

New system would democratize municipal contests

ACROSS THE COUNTRY, voter turnout in local elections has steadily dropped. Electorates for local elections are a shell of what they once were — and of what they could be, given the more robust turnout for state and national elections. This fall, voters in Boston will go to the polls to elect members of the City Council. There are 13 seats up for grabs — four elected at-large and nine elected in districts. Yet, like most of the recent off-year elections with no mayor’s race, only 1 in 6 registered voters will likely cast a ballot.

That low turnout amplifies the significant costs associated with running an election. The Boston Election Department estimates that the average cost of running an election in the city is just over $700,000. In low-turnout contests, the cost-per-actual voter is jarring. The last off-year City Council general election, in 2011, saw just 63,009 of roughly 350,000 total registered voters come to the polls, an overall election cost of $11.13 per vote. The preliminary election—held six weeks prior in only three of the nine council districts—cost the city almost a quarter million dollars, or $14.45 for each of the 16,556 voters that showed up at the polls.


Two years ago, the open race for mayor drew 12 candidates in the preliminary election, while two at-large council openings prompted 19 candidates to vie for one of the four citywide council seats. The race saw a much higher turnout, resulting in an estimated cost of $6.19 per voter in the preliminary election and $4.94 per voter in the final election, the lowest per-voter cost for a city election in many years.

This year, it appears that only five candidates will be on the ballot for the four at-large council seats, far fewer than the nine needed to force a preliminary election that would narrow the field to eight.  Meanwhile, seven of the nine City Council districts will not hold a preliminary election this September due to a lack of more than two candidates. This dearth of candidates will save money for city coffers, but it is hardly good for the health of our electoral democracy.

There are all sorts of reasons for the falloff in local political activity and ideas for what might reverse it. But the dismal state of affairs raises one practical question: Can we hold smarter elections? Instead of lamenting the plummeting voter turnout and the waning interest in local elections, city governments should be experimenting with electoral reforms aimed at stimulating turnout, producing greater voter engagement, and increasing the overall interest in how city government operates. We need a democracy worth paying for.

There will not be a single catch-all reform to cure what ails our cities’ democracies. But there are a number of changes that should be given serious consideration. Expanded early voting, absentee voting, and same-day registration are all long overdue. The city could also consider abandoning off-year elections altogether by establishing four-year City Council terms aligned with mayoral elections. Local elections could also be brought to coincide with even-year state and federal elections.

One more fundamental reform to the actual voting process merits consideration: adoption of an instant runoff voting electoral system — also known as preferential voting or ranked-choice voting. Such a system holds the promise of both cutting costs and producing greater satisfaction with the city’s electoral system. Under our current plurality vote system, the candidate with the most votes in a race for a seat wins, regardless of whether he or she garners a majority. Under an instant runoff voting system, voters rank their preferences within each contest, marking the candidate that is their first choice, second choice, and so on.

For a district City Council race, where a single seat is being filled, the process to count the final vote tally in an instant runoff voting system is very similar to that which is already in use. After the polls close, all of the votes for the candidates that were ranked first on each ballot are counted. If a single candidate has a majority of first-rank votes, they will be elected. If no single candidate has a majority, a second round of counting occurs. This second round of counting begins with the elimination of the candidate that received the fewest first-rank votes. The ballots of the eliminated candidate’s supporters are then reviewed, and their second choice becomes their first choice in the second round. With each subsequent round, the least-favored candidate is eliminated and the next choice of his or her supporters becomes their first choice until a candidate receives a majority. In essence, with each round of counting, each voter casts a ballot for their most preferred candidate still in the contest until a winning candidate emerges.

The process is a bit different for a multi-member contest such as Boston’s at-large council race, in which four seats are at stake. Under the current system, those going to the polls may vote for up to four candidates, and the four candidates winning the most votes are elected. Under an instant runoff approach, a ballot threshold is required to be elected. The threshold is typically calculated by dividing the total number of ballots cast by one more than the total number of seats to be won, and then adding one to that result. For example, in a Boston at-large race in which 50,000 voters turn out, 10,001 votes would be needed to win a seat, rather than the simple majority needed in a single-seat instant runoff election. Once such a threshold is set, ballots are counted in a similar manner as a single-member district election until four candidates meet the threshold for election.

Instant runoff voting would provide the city and its residents many more benefits than our current electoral system provides. First, because it uses a single election rather than the current system of separate preliminary and general elections just weeks apart, instant runoff elections would yield cost savings. Although the actual process of counting votes on election night will become more involved and costly, the city will only need to oversee one election each municipal cycle. Likewise, voters will only need to trek to the polling booth once each election cycle.

But the benefits of instant runoff voting extend beyond just a cost analysis. Allowing voters to rank their candidates is beneficial to the health of our democracy in three notable ways. First, when voters are able to rank their electoral choices, they are empowered to make more thoughtful and well-defined choices about who they want to represent them. Ranked ballots eliminate “vote wasting,” or situations where a vote cast does not end up helping any candidate on the ballot get elected.

By eliminating vote wasting, voter detachment from government is reduced. Even if a voter’s third-ranked candidate is the one eventually elected, that voter still played a role in that candidate’s election. This, in turn, promotes a higher degree of voter satisfaction and negates complaints that one’s vote does not matter. Instant runoff voting also prevents candidates from playing a spoiler role. (Think Ralph Nader’s role in taking votes away from Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race, which was eventually won by George W. Bush. Instant runoff voting in that race would have taken the second-choice votes of Nader supporters and applied them to the tally of the remaining top two candidates.)

Secondly, instant runoff elections also impact candidates and the types of campaigns they run. With an instant runoff system, candidates are campaigning for more than first-choice votes, thus they need to appeal to a broader voter base and avoid alienating parts of the electorate. Because voting decisions with instant runoff elections are not “all-or-nothing” affairs, candidates within this type of system must run more positive, issue-based campaigns. Additionally, the elimination of a preliminary election ensures that there are more candidates throughout the campaign cycle. This can generate a greater discussion of issues, greater mobilization of voters, and higher turnout. The elimination of preliminary elections with an instant runoff system also lowers the campaign-cost burden for first-time candidates who then have more time to appeal to voters and make the case for why they should be elected.

Finally, the end result of instant runoff voting elections produces a democracy which matches the philosophy of the modern voter. The quality of today’s electoral democracy is measured by its ability to include numerous and diverse voices, to promote inclusiveness — racial, gender, and ideological — within the policymaking process, and to promote both transparency and accountability. Researchers have consistently shown that the electorate in low-turnout elections tends to skew toward wealthier, older, and whiter voters.Instant runoff voting has produced an uptick in voter participation in many American cities. And by lowering some of the barriers to candidacy, instant runoff cities can also create a political environment conducive to the election of those typically outside the realms of political power. Women, ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community have all seen success in instant runoff cities.

Different forms of instant runoff voting have been approved in cities across the country, from smaller cities such as Portland, Maine; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Telluride, Colorado, to moderate-sized cities such as Berkeley, California, and larger cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, Memphis, Minneapolis, and St. Paul.

But Boston doesn’t need to look farther than across the Charles River to see the effects of instant runoff voting in practice. Cambridge has used a form of instant runoff voting in its multimember at-large municipal elections since 1941. Any comparison between electoral systems is not perfect, given other differences between the locations, but it’s still worth looking at local elections in Cambridge and Boston. Boston uses a strong-mayor governing system and — like other cities across the country that use this system — experiences an increased turnout when a contested mayoral race is at the top of the ballot.

Since the residents of Cambridge do not directly elect their mayor, it is best to compare their electoral system to Boston’s off-year City Council elections when a mayoral race is not occurring. Over the past 15 years, the average turnout among registered voters in City Council elections has been 50 percent higher in Cambridge (31 percent) than Boston (20 percent). Cambridge also spends less money per vote on its elections. The last two Cambridge City Council elections averaged to about $10 per vote cast. In contrast, the last two Boston City Council elections averaged just over $32 per vote cast.

In part due to its electoral system, the political arena in Cambridge has been more diverse than Boston. The Cambridge City Council has been more successful in incorporating different racial groups than the Boston City Council, even as Boston became a minority-majority city at the turn of the century. The current nine-member at-large Cambridge City Council in essence mirrors the city’s racial makeup.

Until recently, Boston has struggled to elect more than one non-white, at-large city councilor despite its sizeable black, Hispanic, and Asian communities. Because instant runoff voting in multimember districts — like that utilized in Cambridge — uses a ballot threshold, the required number of votes needed to win an election can be lower than what would be required in a traditional first-past-the-post elections.

Critics would argue that this allows for candidates to win an election with a narrow base of support, be it geographic, demographic, or based on some policy interest. Yet at the same time, this perceived flaw has allowed for Cambridge’s council to become more diverse and to serve as a better reflection of various constituencies throughout the city. Across the country, non-white candidates historically have had great difficulty in winning at-large seats where first-past-the-post election systems are in place. That is not the case in Cambridge, where the ballot threshold in instant runoff voting has contributed to a better record of racial diversity.

With another low-turnout election on the horizon this fall, Boston should consider the numerous ways it can benefit from adopting a more modern electoral system based on the principles of ranked-choice voting. Other cities across the country are taking proactive steps to address the falloff in municipal election voter participation. Instant runoff voting is one option in the city’s reform toolbox that would not only reduce the operational cost of running an election by almost half, but could also improve the overall quality of our democracy.

James Sutherland is research director for Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, and an instructor and PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University. The views expressed here are his alone.

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