The Two Sides of Ranked Choice Voting

Shira Schoenberg :: CommonWealth Magazine

MASSACHUSETTS VOTERS will decide on the November ballot whether to overhaul the state’s system of voting by switching to ranked-choice voting for most non-presidential elections.

Under ranked-choice voting, as envisioned by Question 2, each voter ranks candidates according to preference. A candidate who gets more than 50 percent of first-choice votes wins. If no candidate reaches that threshold, however, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and their ballots are recounted based on the voter’s second choice. The process repeats until someone gets a majority.

Evan Falchuk, chair of the YES on 2 campaign and a former United Independent candidate for governor, and Nick Murray, a policy analyst with Maine Policy Institute, joined The Codcast – in separate interviews – to discuss the pros and cons of ranked-choice voting.

“Ranked-choice voting is a simple upgrade to our democracy that gives voters a greater voice and more choices,” Falchuk said. “It makes it so voters never feel their vote is wasted because they can vote for who they truly like without worrying that they’ll split their vote or they’re going to be voting for a spoiler.”

But Murray says ranked-choice voting, which is used in Maine, actually has a less representative outcome. He focused on the fact that some ballots are thrown out, or “exhausted,” because a voter did not rank enough choices to reach the final rounds of tallying. “How can a voting system be considered more democratic or more responsive to the voters if it needs to remove voters from the final tally to get to its stated goal of a majority?” Murray said. “It simply is a false majority.”

Falchuk argues that many of the problems with the current system – negative campaigning, pandering to a small voter base, the feeling of needing to “pick between two evils” – will be lessened with ranked-choice voting.

Falchuk said third party candidates will get a boost because voters will have fewer worries about “spoiler” candidates or electability, since if a person’s first choice gets eliminated, their second choice will count. “It levels the playing field for new voices and new choices,” Falchuk said. “The math doesn’t end up encouraging strategic voting, you can just pick who you actually like.”

But Murray said ranked-choice voting ends up disenfranchising more voters – particularly those who have less information, speak English as a second language, are less educated, or older. These voters, he said, are more likely to mark their ballots incorrectly or rank fewer choices leading their ballots to be “exhausted” before the end of the count. Regular elections, he said, typically see 2 to 3 percent of ballots thrown out due to mismarking, while ranked-choice voting typically has 10 to 11 percent of ballots that are uncounted in the final tally.

the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Murray said ranked-choice voting still leads to strategic voting – for example, voters must decide how important it is to rank a certain candidate first to avoid another candidate reaching the 50 percent threshold — but “it makes that strategizing much more complex.”

Murray said Maine has continued to see negative campaigns and outside spending even with ranked choice voting. “We know the nature of politics runs much deeper than the way we vote,” he said.

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