Ranked-choice opponents peddled ‘alternative facts’

Media need to call out disinformation in campaigns

I LEARNED IMPORTANT lessons from my experience as chair of the Yes on 2 campaign that I believe are valuable for anyone who wants to do the hard work of political reform. One stands out: Lies and disinformation have become normal, accepted parts of American politics. In this “alternative facts” era, people feel free to use disinformation and outright lies to support policy positions — even here in Massachusetts.

Let me be clear: This isn’t about whether or not Ranked Choice Voting is a good idea. A majority of voters rejected Question 2 and wanted to keep the status quo. We lost.

But I saw this behavior firsthand.

In one debate, my opponent told a story about a 9-candidate ranked-choice voting election in California where nearly every voter ranked just 3 candidates, instead of all 9. The point was that voters ranking only 3 of 9 candidates showed that ranked-choice voting didn’t work. It sounds convincing, until you realize that the reason voters only ranked 3 candidates was that under the law at the time voters were only allowed to rank 3 candidates. I corrected the record, thinking my opponent was simply misinformed. To my surprise, at a debate a few days later, my opponent raised the exact same argument in the exact same way.

Opponents regularly made the false (and, frankly, offensive) argument that ranked-choice voting discriminates against black and Hispanic voters because the ballots are too complicated. Opponents cited a single, widely discredited study and chose to ignore a mountain of credible research — and years of experience — that shows that ranked-choice voting actually helps increase turnout, voter participation, and representation among black and Hispanic voters. Why would any decent, honorable person make a false argument like this?

What made matters worse was the failure of debate moderators to prepare themselves to recognize disinformation. In a debate on WBUR, I pointed out that the study being relied on to claim discrimination against black and Hispanic voters had been widely discredited and, in fact, had been decisively refuted. The moderator, after confirming my opponent and I were talking about the same study, decided to simply move on, chalking up the disagreement to a difference of opinion. What a disservice to listeners.

This need to present “both sides” of an issue also leaves press vulnerable to disinformation. For example, after one debate on an NPR affiliate, a reporter performed what the moderator called a “needed fact check” on the debate. Given that all of the misinformation was on one side, the story should have been about one side’s reliance on disinformation. Instead, the positioning gave listeners the impression that neither side could really be trusted. That’s a win for disinformation.

Opponents used other disinformation tactics. A number of times, reporters told us that an opposition group had refused to appear in debates with me, claiming I had called one of their representatives a “racist” during a prior broadcast debate. I had done no such thing. To prove it, we provided the video and transcript of the debate to reporters. With one notable exception — Jon Keller at WBZ-TV — reporters accommodated this ridiculous request, and changed the format of their programs from a debate to separate appearances by the opponent and me. The result was that opponents were able to spread disinformation without opposition.

We didn’t lose this campaign because of this disinformation, but there’s a bigger issue. There aren’t “alternative facts” and the press needs to do a better job of calling out lies and especially the liars who trade in them. For starters, people who pollute a media outlet’s airwaves with misinformation should no longer be welcome guests or otherwise treated as credible sources. Decency and integrity can be restored as norms of behavior only if there are consequences. The question isn’t why do people act this way. The question is why we tolerate it.

Evan Falchuk was chair of the Yes on 2 campaign.