The Symposium: Ranked-Choice Voting in Massachusetts and the Power of Local Activism

Last week, I considered the viability of local activism in response to a grid-locked national system. On that thread, this week I will take a look at a particular motion on the ballot in Massachusetts next week. Popularly known as “Question 2,” since it is the second question on the Nov. 3 ballot, this is the tale of ranked-choice voting.

Ranked-choice voting (RCV), also called “instant runoff voting” or “alternative vote,” is an electoral system where voters rank the candidates running for a particular office in their order of preference, instead of voting for a single candidate. When the ballots are counted, if no candidate has 50 percent or more of the first-choice votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and their votes are transferred to whoever the voters’ next choice of candidate is. This process repeats until either one candidate has 50 percent or more of the vote or only one candidate remains.

There are identifiable problems with RCV just like there are problems with plurality voting (the current system for most of the country, where you choose one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins), such as its vulnerability to gerrymandering and the fact that it doesn’t guarantee proportional representation (i.e. that representatives are picked proportionally to the votes of the people). Still, in general, RCV does have a clear benefit: it stops the spoiler effect, under which third-party or independent candidates can split a voting block and allow an opponent to win with only a minority of the population’s vote. Under RCV, such a hypothetical third-party candidate would likely be eliminated, and their votes would go to the voters’ second choice, ensuring that the party preferred by the majority of people still wins. This lessens voters’ impulse to strategize when voting, allowing them to show support for ideas they know will not win without feeling the danger of potentially allowing ideas they strongly oppose to gain control of their government.

So that’s why I think RCV is a good idea (and if you want to hear more, watch this video). I would go further into the arguments for it, but, assuming most voters have made up their minds this close to the election (and seeing as a recent poll had the “yes” votes ahead by 11 points), instead I want to hold the “Yes on 2” campaign up as an example of successful local activism that demonstrates the large-scale potential for effecting change.

Let’s make one thing clear:, RCV is incredibly unlikely to become a national reality through an act of Congress. There have been two bills introduced that include RCV as a provision, but the first one, introduced in 2005, died in the House of Representatives, and the second, called the “For the People Act of 2019,” passed in the House but has little chance of ever seeing a vote in the Senate. After all, this Congress has had enough trouble passing emergency Covid-19 legislation — election reform is not on the table.

So, instead, organizations like FairVote, which advocates establishing RCV, have looked to states and even cities for RCV advocacy. RCV has been established in a handful of places, including Maine, where it will be used for a presidential election for the first time on Nov. 3, and in the cities of New York and San Francisco, among others. This election cycle, FairVote has set its sights on Massachusetts.

Arguably, the inciting incident for this question happened in 2018, when Rep. Lori Trahan won a crowded Democratic primary with just 21 percent of the vote, becoming the latest in a series of low-minority primary winners — just this summer, Jake Auchincloss won a similarly crowded Democratic primary in the state’s fourth congressional district with only 22.4 percent of the vote, beating out another candidate who received 21.1 percent. After Trahan’s race then recently-formed Voter Choice Massachusetts jumped on that result, with the organization’s leader quoted in the New York Times saying “In the next 12 months, we want to ensure every member of the state legislature understands ranked-choice voting, how it works, its benefits and how it can revitalize democracy and give voters more choice.”

The partnering organizations that would eventually create “Yes on 2” only needed around 80,000 signatures on a petition to put the question on the 2020 ballot, a reasonable feat for a coalition of smaller groups. By Dec. 4 of last year, just over a year after the Times article was published, the coalition collected over 100,000. Such a quick turnaround from intent to reality is much more difficult and requires much greater resources on the national level.

It seems there is a more powerful energy in this local work, too, because the RCV in Massachusetts movement has united a vast array of disparate groups, including the League of Women Voters, Amplify LatinX, The Green-Rainbow Party, and even the Massachusetts Libertarian Party. Groups that normally have differing, sometimes even opposing, interests have united behind this question, and the campaign has raised over $9 million, a substantial portion of that in small-dollar contributions. Even Jennifer Lawrence made a video in support of Question 2. Clearly, voters care about how their democracy is conducted, no matter how dry the details may sound.

Moreover, assuming the measure is passed, Massachusetts will join Maine and potentially Alaska, which has its own RCV referendum on this year’s ballot, as test cases for the system’s viability. Success on the state level could draw the attention of an unlocked Congress, revitalizing the push for election reform that has been stalled out of existence each time it’s been introduced. Moreover, the success could signal the beginning of a new era of political activism in which voters get amped and turn out for the nuanced and un-sexy parts of policy-making.  

And, whatever your opinion on RCV, it’s clear that local activism in the name of reform is what we need to keep our democracy afloat, especially when such reform seems untenable on the national stage.