Though ranked-choice voting has been bruited about for years as a way to improve elections, I never wrote about it because the debate always seemed so abstract. It's not abstract anymore. Question 2 on the Massachusetts ballot would implement ranked-choice statewide beginning in 2022. If the initiative passes, elections in Massachusetts will change dramatically.
It won't be a change for the better.
Proponents of ranked-choice voting argue that the current system, in which the candidate getting the most votes wins the election, is unfair. In a two-candidate race, the winner always receives a majority of the votes, but when three or more candidates are on the ballot, it takes only a plurality, not an outright majority, to win. Ranked-choice advocates call that unjust. "Democracy is supposed to be majority rules," says Evan Falchuk, who ran for governor in 2014 as an independent and now chairs the Yes on 2 Committee. "We should have a system where the majority wins."
But by definition, ranked-choice voting only applies to elections in which there isn't a majority winner. On a ranked-choice ballot, voters can list candidates in order of preference, rather than vote for just the candidate they like best. If no candidate gets more than half of the first-place votes, ranked-choice rules trigger a series of automatic do-overs, repeatedly reallocating votes that went to the least popular candidate until an artificial "majority" is created for one of the remaining candidates. Question 2 thus gives some voters multiple bites of the election apple. At the same time, it effectively disenfranchises other voters — those who don't rank enough candidates for their ballot to last through multiple rounds of tabulation.
Consider the 2014 gubernatorial election in which Falchuk was a candidate.
Five candidates amassed a total of 2,156,468 votes. Republican Charlie Baker received 1,044,573 of those votes — a 48 percent plurality and about 40,000 more votes than his nearest rival, Democrat Martha Coakley. The independent candidates — Falchuk, Scott Lively, and Jeff McCormick — ran far behind the major candidates, the three of them drawing a bit less than 5 percent. Under the commonwealth's longstanding election rules, Baker was the clear winner.
But here's what would have happened if the 2014 race had been run under ranked-choice rules:
Voters would have been able to rate the candidates, marking one as their first choice, another as their second choice, etc. Once the polls closed, the votes would have been counted in rounds. After Round One, when no candidate had an absolute majority of the votes, the last-place candidate — in this case, McCormick — would have been eliminated. Then, in Round Two, anyone whose first choice had been McCormick would have their votes automatically changed to their second choice. Any McCormick voters who didn't designate a second choice would no longer have a say in the election.
Since McCormick only got about 16,000 votes, Round Two would still have left the remaining candidates below 50 percent. So the next-to-last candidate, Lively, would have been dropped from the tally. In Round Three, Lively's 19,000 voters would be deemed to have voted for their second choice, and their votes redistributed accordingly. If some of those voters had picked the eliminated McCormick as their second choice, then their third choice would be counted.
That still wouldn't have been enough to give any candidate an outright majority. So the third-place candidate, Falchuk, would be eliminated, and his votes parceled out in Round Four to the two remaining candidates. Either Baker or Coakley would finally have been declared to have won a "majority." It might have been Baker, the candidate who actually got the most initial votes. But it might well have been Coakley, if more voters listed her as their second or third choice. Meanwhile, many voters would have played no role in the final outcome at all: In electoral parlance, the ballots of those who voted only for one of the three bottom candidates would have been "exhausted" before the final round of tallying.
Is that truly a more democratic system than the one we have now?
In essence, ranked-choice voting gives repeated mulligans to voters who back a loser, while penalizing voters who support just the candidate they prefer and refuse to rank candidates they know they don't want. Jurisdictions that have adopted ranked-choice voting can end up discarding so many "exhausted" ballots, researchers have found, that the final winner often receives less than a majority of the total votes cast. That certainly undercuts the main argument made by ranked-choice advocates.
"Democracy is supposed to be majority rules," say Falchuk and Yes on 2. But is "majority rules" really accomplished by a convoluted quadrille of repeated recalculations, in which first choices are swapped for second choices, and second choices for third choices, all of it happening in a computerized black box after the polls have closed?
Backers of Question 2 call ranked-choice voting an "instant runoff" system. Why not just have runoff elections? When a multi-candidate race ends with no candidate getting a majority, let the top two finishers compete in a straightforward runoff. For anyone passionate about "majority rules," that is surely a better arrangement than the intricate ranked-choice process. All voters can participate in a runoff, after all, not just those who voted for the least popular candidates. And unlike in a ranked-choice election, the winner of a runoff can claim a true mandate from a majority of the electorate.
Switching up the rules of a contest can be entertaining when playing poker, but election procedures should be simple and readily understood. In Massachusetts, elections are won by the candidate who gets the most votes. It may not be a flawless system, but it won't be improved by Question 2.
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.
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