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Ranked-Choice Voting Supporters See Opening in Fall River Mayoral Recall; Voters in Vermont’s Largest City Feel Differently About It

March 14, 2019

Ranked-choice-voting advocates are using the recall election of Mayor Jasiel Correia II this week in Fall River to argue why their preferred system should become law in Massachusetts.

Correia, who is under federal indictment for fraud, was recalled by a 61 percent majority of voters Tuesday, March 12, but elected to the theoretically vacant position on the same ballot by winning a plurality of 35 percent. The second-place finisher took 33 percent, followed by three other candidates who further split the vote.

The result means Correia can finish out his term.

“Quite simply, ranked choice voting would have secured the outcome desired by a clear majority of Fall River voters yesterday,” said Greg Dennis, policy director of Voter Choice Massachusetts, an organization with an office in Boston that advocates for ranked-choice voting, in a written statement.

But one election observer called the result “intensely democratic.”

Asked by the Fall River Herald News why Fall River voters didn’t boot Correia from office in the five-way race, Michael J. Yelnosky, dean of Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, Rhode Island (about 6 miles southwest of Fall River), replied:  “Because the majority couldn’t make up its mind.”

Fall River, like almost everywhere else in Massachusetts and the country, uses a system known as first-past-the-post, meaning the candidate who gets the highest number of votes wins.

A rival system called ranked-choice voting allows voters to pick a second choice and third choice and so on down the ballot in addition to their vote. In a version now used in Maine, if no candidate gets a majority of votes, then election officials hold a second round, eliminating the last-place finisher and distributing the second-choice selections of voters for that candidate to the other candidates. If no candidate gets a majority in the second round, then a third round begins, with the next-to-last-place finisher eliminated and that candidate’s voters’ second-choice selections distributed to the remaining candidates.

If someone gets a majority of votes and down-ballot selections, that candidate wins. If not, the process continues until there are two candidates left, and whichever of the two gets the higher number of votes and down-ballot selections wins.

A bill in the Massachusetts Senate, S. 414, would require ranked-choice voting statewide. It has 29 sponsors in the state Legislature.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting call it an “instant runoff” that ensures that the winning candidate in an election has something that resembles majority support, instead of a mere plurality of votes.

But voters in left-leaning Burlington, Vermont felt differently about ranked-choice voting in 2010, when a majority repealed it after using it for five years.

In March 2009, an unpopular mayor won re-election in the city’s ranked-choice-voting system even though he didn’t get the highest number of votes and even though he would have lost head-to-head against two other candidates.

Bob Kiss, a socialist and a member of the Vermont Progressive Party, was elected mayor in 2006. In the 2009 election, he got only 29 percent of the vote in a five-man race, second to the Republican challenger, who got 33 percent.

The Republican got more votes than Kiss. Either the Republican or the Democrat (who got 28 percent) would have beaten Kiss in a two-man race.

But after down-ballot selections from the fifth-place, fourth-place, and third-place candidates were figured in, Kiss ended up with more votes and down-ballot selections – though not a majority even of those – than the Republican, and was declared the winner. Kiss in the ranked-choice system ended up with 48 percent of votes and down-ballot selections, as opposed to 45 percent for the Republican. (Seven percent of the ballots were declared “exhausted,” meaning the voters had voted for one of the bottom-three candidates and either didn’t make down-ballot selections or all of their down-ballot selections weren’t for either of the two finalists.)

Kiss’s administration is most remembered for a debacle involving Burlington Telecom, a city-owned utility that provided telephone, Internet, and cable television to city residents. During Kiss’s second term, it became public that the city had spent $16.9 million over several years to prop up the failing company, racking up large debts and hurting the city’s credit rating in the process. Two city councilors ended up suing Kiss’s former chief administrative officer in an attempt to recoup taxpayers’ losses.

Last month, state regulators approved a decision by Burlington’s city council to sell the city-owned utility to a private company.

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