Ranked-Choice Voting Advocates Pushing For System That Could Change Outcomes — and Might Have Prevented Two Recent Presidencies

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2020/09/08/ranked-choice-voting-advocates-pushing-for-system-that-could-change-outcomes-and-might-have-prevented-two-recent-presidencies/

Some people want to change the way people vote in Massachusetts and implement a system that could have prevented Republicans George W. Bush and Donald Trump from ever becoming president if used nationwide.

Voters in November can expect to see a ballot question seeking to establish ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts. The system would allow people to rank their preferred candidates in the order of their preference.

It would replace the current system in the state, known as first-past-the-post, in which the candidate with the highest number of votes wins, even if the candidate gets less than a majority.

Supporters say it would eliminate situations where candidates win elections with less than majority support, which they say is a good thing, and that the system would encourage voters to pick candidates they prefer instead of settling for the lesser of two evils.

Opponents say the system gives some voters more than one bite at the apple, since their second choice or even lower choices could help determine the winner. They also see nothing wrong with a candidate who gets a plurality that is less than 50 percent winning a race.

Ranked choice, which is the system for some elections in Maine, comes into play when there are three or more candidates for an office.

Voters are presented with a list of candidates and are offered the chance not just to vote for one but — if they wish — to number their selections in order of preference. In Maine’s Second Congressional District in November 2018, for instance, voters got a ballot that looked like this:

Sample ballot for the November 2018 general election in Maine for the state’s Second Congressional District. Source: Maine Secretary of State’s web site


In ranked-choice voting, if a candidate receives more than half of the first-place votes, that candidate wins the election — just as with the current system of first-past-the-post.

However, if no candidate receives more than half of the votes, then the bottom candidate is eliminated, and the second-choice selections of voters who picked that candidate first are distributed to the remaining candidates. Election officials add the first-place votes and the second-choice selections for each candidate together.

If more than two candidates survive the elimination, then the second-from-the-bottom candidate is eliminated, and the second-choice selections of voters for that candidate are distributed among the surviving candidates. If the second-choice selections are for a candidate who has already been eliminated, then the candidate’s voters’ third-choice selections are distributed to the remaining candidates — and so on.

This process repeats until there are only two candidates remaining, at which time the candidate with the higher number is declared the winner.

In Massachusetts, ranked-choice voting is Question 2 on the ballot. Voting Yes would implement ranked-choice voting. Voting No would keep the current first-past-the-post system.

Evan Falchuk, a Democrat, who ran for governor as a member of the United Independent Party in 2014, is the chair of the Ranked Choice Voting 2020 Committee, the advocacy group fighting in favor of ranked-choice voting. He told New Boston Post that it’s a much-needed change to improve the voting system.

“We really need to make some pretty important reforms to our democracy and it’s more than electing new people,” Falchuk said. “We need to make it possible for there to be more choices in our politics and more choices for voters. To me, that’s really what matters right now.”

“One of the challenges of people trying to run as a third-party or independent is that people say if you vote for that person, you’re wasting your vote or they’re a spoiler,” he added. “That’s not fair. With ranked-choice voting that goes away because people can vote for who they like and who they want to vote for rather than picking who they dislike less. It opens up our democracy to those voices. It’s something that’s needed.”

The system cost Republican former congressman Bruce Poliquin a U.S. House seat when implemented in 2018 because while he got more first-place votes than Democratic challenger Jared Golden, it was less than a majority, and more voters for the single-digit third-place and fourth-place finishers ranked Golden second or third on their ballots than Poliquin. When the dust cleared nine days after election day, Golden was declared the winner.

Republicans in Maine are still hot about the outcome. Then-Governor Paul LePage wrote “Stolen Election” on the document certifying the outcome shortly before leaving office, and the state GOP is trying to put a ballot question seeking repeal of ranked-choice voting on the November 2020 general election ballot.

Falchuk acknowledges that ranked-choice voting could have changed the outcomes of the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections, if implemented nationally.

For example:  Trump won North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska’s second congressional district, Maine’s second congressional district, and Utah with less than 50 percent of the vote, whereas Clinton won Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Minnesota with less than half the vote. If ranked-choice voting had been used in those states, then the second-choice and lower-choice selections of voters for lesser-party would have had to be figured to determine who was awarded the electoral votes.

In 2000, Bush won Ohio, Nevada, Florida, and New Hampshire with less than 50 percent of the vote; Gore did the same in Maine, Iowa, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Oregon. Most famously, Bush won Florida, which determined the election, by 537 votes — a state where Green Party candidate Ralph Nader got 97,488 votes. If Gore had gotten more second-place selections from Nader voters than Bush, he could have won Florida.

“It’s possible absolutely,” he said. “At the end of the day, the winner should get the majority. It’s not fair when they don’t. It’s not democracy. Democracy is supposed to be majority rules. We should have a system where the majority wins. 

“Even in those close races like the ones you were just talking about, races would be run differently,” Falchuk continued. “As it is today, if I’m campaigning and I see a lawn sign for a candidate, there’s no reason to reach out to that voter whereas in a ranked-choice system, you’d reach out to see if you could find common ground with this person. In 2016, for example, you would’ve seen Clinton reach out to Libertarian and Green supporters to find common ground and probably would’ve seen the same thing from Trump.”

New Boston Post also posed this question to Falchuk:  “Why should someone’s eighth choice count as much as my first choice in an election when we already counted their previous votes?”

Here’s how Falchuk responded.

“Your vote counts and it counts once,” he said. “If your eighth choice is the winner, it counts towards that, but it allows you to see on each ballot each voter’s real preference. The way I think about it is people do this kind of ranking all the time. Say you’re getting ice cream you can say, ‘If they have cookie dough I’ll get that and if not, I’ll get moose tracks. If that’s not available, I’ll get mint chip.’ People do this all the time and it doesn’t mean that mint chip counts for more than moose tracks. It’s, ‘which one do you want?’ “

Social epidemiologist Natalia Linos, who ran in the Democratic primary in the U.S. House race in Massachusetts’s Fourth Congressional District this year, is another supporter of ranked-choice voting.

Linos, who finished fourth out of nine candidates on the ballot, told New Boston Post that her race helps make the case for why the system should change. The winner, Jake Auchincloss, got just 22.4 percent in the crowded field.

“I support ranked-choice voting because it requires candidates to have broad support, and I think that’s good for democracy,” Linos said in an emailed statement provided by a campaign official. “Candidates should have to appeal to as wide an audience as possible and earn their trust in order to win. Particularly in crowded races with a lot of candidates, like our race in the 4th District this year, I think a lot of voters wish they could have ranked the candidates to show support for more than one person. RCV would empower more candidates from diverse backgrounds to step up, which is a good thing.”

Not everyone is on board with ranked-choice voting, however. 

That includes Jim Lyons, the chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party.

“One person, one vote,” he told New Boston Post in a statement sent via email. “That’s the bedrock of American elections. Ranked-choice voting would delegitimize our elections.”

Additionally, Paul Craney, the spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, directed New Boston Post to statements from a 2019 press release where he opposed ranked-choice voting, referring to it as “rigged choice,” saying that it does not represent the will of the majority.

“When you cannot change enough hearts and minds to fairly win an election, you change the rules,” Craney wrote. “That is exactly what ranked-choice voting does. The proposed bill would redistribute elections to candidates who receive fewer votes than the actual winners. The way these types of instant runoff elections are counted is both complex and opaque and would heavily rely on potentially vulnerable electronic counting systems.”

Additionally, Craney said he didn’t think the system worked well in Maine when first tried in 2018.

“Rigged choice was tried in Maine and within the first close election, it created a lot of confusion and feelings of disenfranchisement,” Craney wrote. “Ultimately, this will only lead to more partisanship and extreme positions as elections become dominated by straw candidates and politicians focus more on rallying their base and less on representing their constituents. Once you remove the premise of one person, one vote, you open a Pandora’s box of issues.”

MassFiscal also noted that California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill to allow ranked-choice voting in his state last year.

“Where it has been implemented, I am concerned that it has often led to voter confusion, and that the promise that ranked-choice voting leads to greater democracy is not necessarily fulfilled,” Newsom said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In August, the Democratic mayor of Burlington, Vermont vetoed a ranked-choice voting measure that had passed the city council 6-5. The mayor, Miro Weinberger, called the system cost-ineffective and divisive — the city used the system earlier this century, but voters repealed it in 2010 after an incumbent Progressive Party mayor won re-election in 2009 despite coming in second in first-place votes and during the first two elimination rounds.

In Massachusetts, the first public poll on the ranked-choice voting initiative came out last month. The poll, by MassInc, found that 36 percent of voters planned on voting yes, 36 percent planned on voting no, and 28 percent were undecided.