Boston’s looming mayoral campaign illustrates the value of ranked-choice voting

Two smart progressive women who serve on the Boston City Council will challenge Mayor Marty Walsh next year, assuming Walsh seeks re-election. I’m not sure I can remember a time that candidates who are the caliber of Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell have taken on an incumbent.

Their candidacies are yet another reason that you should vote “yes” this fall on Question 2, which would create a system of ranked-choice voting. I’m not exactly making an intuitive argument — RCV, which I wrote about recently for GBH News, wouldn’t apply to the Boston mayoral race. But hear me out.

If municipal elections in Massachusetts were partisan, then Walsh, Wu and Campbell would all run in a Democratic primary, with the winner facing a Republican in the fall. Presumably it would help Walsh enormously to have Wu and Campbell split the anti-Walsh vote.

But that’s not how it works. All three (and perhaps others) will run in a preliminary election, and the top two finishers will face off in November. You could accomplish the same thing with RCV. The point is that Wu and Campbell supporters will be able to vote for their favorite knowing that Walsh will have to face one of them (or someone else depending on who else runs) in a head-to-head contest.

Walsh has been a popular mayor, so I’m certainly not predicting his defeat. But whoever wins will need to get more than 50% of the vote in a one-on-one election. That’s what democracy looks like.

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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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Rashida Tlaib and the perils of our first-across-the-finish-line elections

Photo (cc) 2008 by H2Whoa!

I was reading a New York Times story about a serious primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib when I came across this sentence: “Had the 2018 primary been a head-to-head race, many believe Ms. Jones would have prevailed.” Jones is Brenda Jones, the Black president of the Detroit City Council, against whom Tlaib is running once again. I decided to look a little more deeply to find out what had happened.

Tlaib, as you no doubt know, is a member of “the squad” — four progressive women of color, all Democrats, who were elected to the House in 2018. (The others are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley.) What I didn’t know was that Tlaib’s brief political career stands out as an example of what’s wrong with our first-across-the-finish-line method of determining elections.

Tlaib first ran in a special election to replace John Conyers, who resigned following charges of sexual harassment. She came in second in a multi-candidate field. Jones, the winner of the Democratic primary, received 37.7% of the vote, becoming the acting congresswoman. (In Tlaib’s district, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the election.) Tlaib came in second with 35.9%

A few months later, another primary was held to choose a regular replacement for Conyers. This time, in a five-candidate field, Tlaib finished first, with 31.2%, and Jones came in second, with 30.2% Note that Tlaib’s support had actually dropped nearly five points since the special election. About 69% of voters cast ballots for someone other than Tlaib. But she was declared the winner, which is how it works under our system.

According to Ballotpedia, the 2020 primary, which will be held Aug. 4, will feature just two candidates, Tlaib and Jones, thus guaranteeing that the winner will receive a majority. That’s the way it should be. If no candidate receives a majority, then there ought to be a runoff election between the top two finishers or ranked-choice voting. (I wrote about ranked choice, also known as instant-runoff voting, and other election reforms for WGBH News in 2018.)

In any case, this will be an interesting primary to keep an eye on. The outspoken Tlaib, who’s Palestinian-American, is, along with Omar, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Jones represents a more moderate African American constituency.

At least this time, we’ll have a chance of finding out whom voters actually prefer.

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How June primaries, the instant runoff and nonpartisan elections could revive democracy in Mass.

WGBH News photo by Meredith Nierman.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The Massachusetts primaries were a success — if by “success” you mean there was no obvious Russian interference, there were enough ballots for everyone, and none of candidates came to blows in the parking lot outside the local Elks hall.

But notwithstanding the excitement of Ayanna Pressley’s surprising win over longtime congressman Michael Capuano, you would have been hard-pressed to find an outbreak of civic engagement.

Secretary of State Bill Galvin had predicted that turnout would be around 15 percent — a pathetic figure that’s pretty much standard for primaries, and one more obstacle for challengers hoping to unseat better-known incumbents. Moreover, in the hotly contested Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional District, Daniel Koh was leading a 10-candidate field early this morning with less than 22 percent of the vote. In other words, more than 78 percent of voters wanted someone else to succeed U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, who’s retiring.

Minuscule turnout and razor-thin victories by candidates who are supported by barely one-fifth of those who bothered to show up are deadly to the body politic. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a reform-minded spirit and a willingness to try something new, we could reinvent elections in Massachusetts. Here are three ideas that could restore competition as well turn nonvoters into voters. What are we waiting for?

Move the primaries to June

Galvin didn’t have to designate Sept. 4 as primary day. But he didn’t have any good choices. Given when the Jewish holidays fall this year, he couldn’t have scheduled the primaries for either of the following two Tuesdays. But who says the primaries have to be held in September?

If you’ve been paying attention to primary contests in other states, you know that voters have been casting ballots all summer. The stretch between the July 4 and Labor Day is traditionally a time when many people set politics aside and concentrate on more compelling matters, such as the beach. That’s why I’d move the primaries to sometime in mid- or late June. New York does it with federal offices; you may recall that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s unexpected victory in the primary for a congressional seat came on June 26. I would do the same in Massachusetts for both federal and state contests.

On the face of it, you might think a longer campaign is something to be avoided. Here’s why I think that’s wrong. A late-June primary would mean that candidates could run hard for two or three months in the spring, at a time when voters might be paying more attention. Televised debates would get bigger audiences. Challengers would be able to make their case in the high-attention months of April, May, and June rather than in the dog days of summer.

The switch would help general-election challengers as well. State Rep. Geoff Diehl, an obscure Republican, and former Patrick administration official Jay Gonzalez, a little-known Democrat, now have an eight-week sprint in which to make the case that they should defeat two popular incumbents — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker, respectively. The challengers should have had the summer to put their campaigns together rather than fending off challengers from their own parties.

The good news is that both Galvin and his Republican opponent, Anthony Amore, support moving the primaries to the spring, as did Galvin’s Democratic challenger, Josh Zakim. So does The Boston Globe’s editorial page. To many this is one reform idea whose time has come.

Adopt the instant runoff

I’ve been arguing for this since 2000, and there are reasons to believe it might finally happen. Maine has adopted it. Cambridge has been doing it in municipal elections for years. The Boston Globe has endorsed it. The goal is to get past our winner-take-all elections, in which whoever comes in first is handed the victory, even if he or she attracts far less than a majority.

The instant runoff, also known as ranked choice, gives voters an opportunity to indicate their order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and her supporters’ second-place votes are awarded to the remaining contenders. Candidates continue to be eliminated in this manner until someone has a majority. And if no candidate has a majority after the second-place votes are counted, the process is repeated with voters’ third choices, fourth choices, and so on. It’s like having a series of runoff elections, except that voters only have to go to the polls once.

The advantage of this is that the eventual winner might be someone who has more broad support among the electorate than the candidate who finishes first with less than a majority. As I’m writing this, Daniel Koh is just a little more than 600 votes ahead of Lori Trahan in the Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional District, with a margin of 21.7 percent to 20.9 percent. A recount looms. In a 10-candidate field, though, it’s impossible to know which of them would prove to be more popular with voters who backed another candidate. For that matter, the consensus choice might be someone else altogether. The instant runoff would provide the answer.

For more information about ranked-choice voting, visit the website of the the nonprofit organization Voter Choice Massachusetts.

Switch to nonpartisan primaries

I’ll admit that I’m not as enthusiastic about this idea as I am about June primaries and the instant runoff. But despite Republican Charlie Baker’s popularity, Democrats have long had a stranglehold on politics in Massachusetts. Democrats control every statewide office except the governorship — both U.S. Senate seats, all nine congressional seats, and overwhelming majorities in both branches of the state Legislature. Consider that Pressley, following her exciting win over Capuano, will not even face a Republican opponent in November. That’s not healthy for democracy.

Nonpartisan primaries would simply mean that the top two finishers would face each other in the general election. They might be two Democrats, a Democrat and a Republican, two independents, a Democrat and a Libertarian, or whatever. Among other things, such a system might lead to the emergence of more moderate Baker-style Republicans, as right-wing candidates would no longer be assured of a spot on the November ballot simply by virtue of winning the Republican primary.

Nonpartisan primaries have been adopted in California. They have also long been in effect in cities like Boston, where both the mayor and the city council are elected without regard for party affiliation.

I would not eliminate party labels. But nonpartisan primaries could lead to more competition — especially for entrenched Democratic incumbents who coast to their party’s nomination and then face token Republican opposition (if that) in November.

The fact that not just Pressley but also challengers to several longtime legislators were successful shows that democracy in Massachusetts still has a beating pulse. But we can do better. And these are not the only ideas to improve our elections. Weekend-long voting would make it easier for many people to get to the polls than the one-day Tuesday ritual. Dividing the state into, say, three congressional districts instead of nine, with each district electing three people, could give a boost to Republicans and minority parties.

After Tuesday’s low-turnout exercise in what is supposed to be participatory democracy, though, changing the way we hold primaries and moving past winner-take-all ought to be the first order of business.

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A couple of laments about our undemocratic primaries

Photo (cc) 2008 by Dan Kennedy.

A couple of laments about the Massachusetts primaries, which will be held next Tuesday, the day after Labor Day.

First, voters traditionally don’t tune in to politics until after Labor Day. Secretary of State Bill Galvin had no good options given the timing of the Jewish holidays this year. But the Sept. 4 date gives a huge advantage to incumbents who might otherwise be in trouble, including Galvin himself. I don’t like the idea of an August primary, which a number of states have adopted. But why not several months earlier? New York holds its primaries in June. Sounds good to me.

Second, winner-take-all elections are fundamentally anti-democratic, especially in multi-candidate fields. No one would be surprised if the winner of the Democratic primary in the Third Congressional District, where Niki Tsongas is retiring, got 20 percent of the vote — or less. For that matter, U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano, who faces a tough challenge from Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley in the Seventh, won the Democratic primary with just 23 percent when he was nominated for the first time in 1998 with a 10-candidate field. At the very least, the top two finishers should meet in a runoff. Even better, adopt the instant runoff so that voters can rank candidates by their order of preference.

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