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Charlie Baker comes out against ranked choice voting ballot measure in Massachusetts

N. DeCosta-Klipa :: Boston.com

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito listens to Gov. Charlie Baker speak during a press conference last month at the Massachusetts State House in Boston. –Sam Doran / Pool
Updated on October 27, 2020 | 4:24 PM

Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito became the first statewide elected officials in Massachusetts on Tuesday to come out in opposition to Question 2 , the state ballot measure to implement ranked choice voting, citing concerns about its purported cost and complexity.

If passed, the measure would allow Massachusetts residents to rank candidates by preference — first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. — in races with more than two contestants beginning in 2022. Under the system, if no one has more than 50 percent of the vote when first-choice picks are counted, the last-place finisher in the race is eliminated and their first-choice votes are reallocated based on who their supporters put as their second choice. The ballots are then recounted and, if necessary, the process repeats until one candidate reaches the 50 percent threshold.

Supporters say ranked choice voting would alleviate fears about “spoiler” candidates and ensure that candidates in the state’s often-crowded Democratic primaries must win with more than just a narrow slice of the electorate. Question 2 has garnered support from the state’s top Democrats, including Attorney General Maura Healey and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey .

However, in a press release from their campaign, Baker and Polito said they intend to vote against the ballot measure.

“At a time when we need to be promoting turnout and making it easier for voters to cast their ballots, we worry that question two will add an additional layer of complication for both voters and election officials, while potentially delaying results and increasing the cost of elections,” the two Republicans said in a joint statement.

“We believe the system we have now has served the Commonwealth well, and intend to vote ‘no’ on question two,” they added.

Studies on ranked choice voting — which has been implemented in Maine as well as in other state primaries and municipal elections across the country — have found mixed results when assessing its impact on voter turnout. Some skeptics have also voiced concerns that the system would negatively affect people who aren’t as engaged in politics and may not rank all their preferences, leading to potential ballot exhaustion. However, again, research on the subject has been inconclusive.

Still, during a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Baker reiterated his concern that ranked choice voting is “very complicated.”

“We’re about to have a very complicated election, administratively, just without it,” the governor said, alluding to the emergency changes this year to expand early and mail-in voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The counting process alone could get unbelievably difficult,” he continued. “Look, I have all the faith in the world in the local communities and the people in Massachusetts and the rules and the protocols that we have in place here in the commonwealth to have what I would call a full and fair election. I don’t want to overly complicate that process to such an extent that people start to wonder, you know, what is it that’s actually going on here.”

If passed in Massachusetts, the ballot measure would apply to elections for the state legislature, county offices such as district attorney and sheriff, statewide seats like governor and attorney general, and federal races for the U.S. House and Senate. It would not apply to municipal or presidential elections.

Baker’s announcement Tuesday drew a strong rebuke from Healey, who said she was “surprised” by the governor’s stance.

“The people of Massachusetts are intelligent, engaged, thoughtful voters,” the attorney general told Boston.com in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

“Anyone suggesting that a system that the people of Maine and Minneapolis and Ireland use without any issue is somehow too complicated for us in Massachusetts doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.

Healey pointed to data showing that voters overwhelmingly support and understand ranked choice voting in places where it has been implemented.

“I’m a big believer in actually talking to people who’ve done this,” she said.

Healey said Baker’s argument that the system would add to an already complex election was “conflating” the facts; even if passed, Question 2 would not take effect until 2022.

“God forbid we have coronavirus in 2022,” Healey said, adding that there’s “no better example” of voters’ ability to adapt to a new voting system than the general success of mail-in voting this year.

Healey also flatly dismissed Baker’s concern about administrative costs, which she characterized as a “de minimis” fraction of the budget.

“It’s not a good point,” she said.

The overall cost of implementing ranked choice voting in Maine for the first time in 2018 was $441,804, according to the state’s website . And according to Healey, Massachusetts already has regulations in place requiring tabulating machines in all “non-hand-count” Massachusetts towns by 2022.

“That tabulation, we know, can be done by a computer nearly instantaneously once all the ballots are scanned,” she said.

Massachusetts Secretary of State Bill Galvin, a fellow Democrat, has also personally expressed support for ranked choice voting . However, his office declined to weigh in on Baker’s cost and implementation concerns.

“The Secretary does not take positions on ballot questions, given his role as chief election officer,” Deb O’Malley, a spokesman for Galvin, told Boston.com in an email.

Baker’s announcement comes with just a week left until the Nov.3 election, in which more than 1.7 million Massachusetts residents have already cast ballots through mail-in and in-person early voting.

It also comes on the heels of a UMass Amherst poll Monday showing Question 2 in a close race. According to the poll, 48 percent of respondents said they support Question 2, 43 percent said they oppose it, and 9 percent said they were undecided. The poll also found a partisan split, with Democrats mostly rallying behind the “yes” campaign by a two-to-one margin and Republicans overwhelmingly backing the “no” side.

Following the news Tuesday, the Yes on 2 campaign highlighted its endorsements on Twitter from high-profile Democrats like Healey, Warren, and Markey, as well Rep. Ayanna Pressley and former Gov. Deval Patrick. They also re-upped a statement from former Republican Gov. Bill Weld, a Yes on 2 campaign co-chair who Baker has called a “mentor,” arguing that ranked choice voting reduces negative campaigning and encourages more women and candidates of color to run for office. Weld, who was the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee in 2016, also noted that the system could make it easier for third-party candidates to run.

“Barriers for new competition will be reduced for candidates outside of both major parties,” Weld said.

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