We need ranked-choice voting — and this November we can make it happen

GBH News graphic by Kaitlyn Locke.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Here we go again.

As of Wednesday morning, it was still unclear who had won the Democratic primary in the Fourth Congressional District. In a field of nine candidates, including two who had dropped out before the primary, Jesse Mermell was running ahead of Jake Auchincloss by the razor-thin margin of 22.4% to 22.3%. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that whoever is nominated in the race to succeed U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy will have received far fewer than a majority of the votes.

That also happened two years ago in the Third Congressional District, when Lori Trahan edged out Dan Koh in a 10-candidate Democratic primary. Trahan received 21.7% to Koh’s 21.5%, which was enough to propel her to victory that November against token Republican and independent opposition. This time around, Trahan, now the incumbent congresswoman, ran unopposed in the primary.

This is no way to run a democracy. Elections that produce winners lacking majority support fail to reflect the will of the voters. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One solution would be to have a runoff election between the top two finishers. That’s the way they do it in some states, and it would be preferable to what we have currently in Massachusetts. But that’s expensive and time-consuming. Even then, it looks like Mermell and Auchincloss together will receive less than 50%, as was the case with Trahan and Koh in 2018 — which means that a majority of Democratic voters wanted someone else.

That’s why ranked-choice voting — also known as the instant runoff — is a better solution. And it’s on the ballot this fall. If Question 2 is approved, the system would go into effect in 2022, covering most state and federal offices but exempting presidential and local elections.

Here’s how ranked-choice voting works. Let’s say five candidates are running. You can vote for one, just as you do now. Or you can designate a second choice and, if you like, keep right on going from one to five in order of preference. It’s entirely up to you.

If no one wins a majority, the fifth-place finisher would be eliminated, and the second choices of voters who supported that candidate would be awarded among the remaining candidates. The instant runoff continues until someone emerges with a majority. Third-place (or lower) votes would be counted if more rounds are needed to produce a majority winner. (For more information about ranked-choice voting, visit Yes on 2.)

This accomplishes two things. First, it eliminates the possibility that a minority winner might be someone who is loathed by voters who backed other candidates. Instead, the winner will be someone who had broad enough support to have been the second or third choice of many voters. Second, it eliminates gamesmanship at the polls. No longer would voters have an incentive to pick someone who isn’t their top choice in order to block someone else. Instead, they could rank their favorite first and their backup second.

The bane of this sort of strategic voting — or, rather, non-strategic voting — is why Maine adopted ranked choice in 2018. The bombastic Republican Paul LePage was elected governor in 2010 and 2014, each time with less than a majority, because a strong independent candidate split the anti-LePage vote with the Democratic nominee. Given what a polarizing figure LePage was, it seems likely that most independent voters would have picked the Democrat as their second choice (and vice versa), thus reflecting the will of the majority that someone other than LePage serve as governor.

I’ve been a fan of ranked-choice voting since 2000, when Ralph Nader’s independent candidacy may very well have cost Al Gore the election and handed the presidency to George W. Bush. As I wrote for The Boston Phoenix at the time, if you make the reasonable assumption that most Nader voters would have ranked Gore second, Gore would have taken Florida and thus the White House.

The question now is whether Question 2 will pass muster with voters in Massachusetts. It’s got a lot of support. According to State House News Service, all but one Democratic candidate in the Fourth Congressional District, including Mermell and Auchincloss, said they supported ranked choice.

Moreover, a recent poll by WBUR and the MassINC Polling Group showed that respondents were evenly split on the measure — but that among those who said they understood ranked choice “very well,” 52% were in favor and 37% were against. With two months to go before the November election, proponents have a chance to win over skeptics.

Of course, the power of inertia is difficult to overcome. Ranked-choice voting isn’t as simple as the system we have now, and there’s a lot to be said for simplicity. But elections should reflect the will of the voters as closely as possible. Ranked choice does that. Which is why I’m voting “yes” on Question 2.

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