These Massachusetts cities and towns voted ‘yes’ on ranked choice voting ballot measure that failed
Voters across the state ultimately rejected a proposal to implement ranked choice voting in some Massachusetts elections, but local voting patterns show the debate fell along partisan lines, experts say.
Dozens of cities and towns approved Question 2, accounting for 1.5 million votes, according to the Associated Press' latest tally. But more than 1.8 million residents rejected the ballot measure.
Both the campaign for Question 2 and its opponents touted their bipartisan cohorts, but cities and towns that backed Democratic nominee Joe Biden for president also supported Question 2.
“At the end, it became partisan where Republican elected officials lined up on the no side and Democrats lined up on the yes side,” Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group, said in an interview.
The ballot measure proposed implementing ranked-choice voting in state legislative and congressional elections, in which voters rank their first-choice candidate, followed by their second, third and subsequent choices.
Under the proposal, if no candidate gets more than 50% of first-place votes, the last-place candidate gets eliminated and the voters' second-choice candidates get the votes instead. The process continues with one round after the next until a candidate gets more than half of the vote.
Anthony Amore, former candidate for Secretary of State and a member of the committee against Question 2, said voters he spoke with didn’t seem inclined to support the ballot measure because it was complicated.
“It’s just a terrible idea, and the average person gets that,” he said last week during a news conference.
Seventy-seven cities and towns approved the ballot measure, according to a MassLive review of unofficial election results Tuesday. They range from cities such as Boston and Cambridge, to small towns from Truro on Cape Cod to Leverett in Western Massachusetts.
The “yes” side’s endorsements ranged from left-leaning actress Jennifer Lawrence to U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, while the “no” side notched support from Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, both Republicans.
At the local level, the ballot measure garnered support from the majority of voters in Northampton, Amherst, Williamstown, Cambridge and Boston, communities where President-elect Joe Biden also performed well.
The communities where ranked choice voting garnered some of the most widespread support were among the most liberal. In addition to Amherst, Northampton, and Cambridge, Question 2 decisively won in Leverett, Somerville, Williamstown and Provincetown.
Most of the cities and towns that voted yes on Question 2, though, saw smaller margins. About 55% voted yes in Chelsea, 51.5% voted yes in Lawrence and 50.6% voted yes in Winchester, all excluding blank ballots.
West Bridgewater, a small town in Plymouth County that voted for President Donald Trump, rejected the ballot measure. The same pattern held for Middleborough, Swansea, Rehoboth, East Bridgewater and Ludlow, where the majority of voters backed Trump and rejected Question 2.
A WBUR poll conducted by the MassINC Polling Group in August found Massachusetts voters were split over Question 2 with 36% for and against. Another 27% were undecided.
A UMass Amherst/WCVB poll in late October showed the “yes” camp gained: 48% support ranked choice voting while 43% opposed it and 9% were undecided.
It’s unusual for proponents of a ballot question to gain support closer to Election Day, Koczela said. But perhaps the bigger takeaway was the campaign for ranked choice voting failed to capture the majority of voters, which is what the election results showed.
“As late as August, there was not that strong of a buy-in into it,” he said. “It’s not that they disliked it. It just was not something that ever really won people over.”
Evan Horowitz, director of Tisch College’s Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, said he initially didn’t expect the ballot measure to turn into a partisan issue.
“The way ranked choice voting works, there’s no reason why it should be partisan. I didn’t anticipate that,” he said.
But the Question 2 campaign saw right-wing opposition early on, chiefly from the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. And the support from Baker, who is seen as more of a moderate Republican, helped cement that perception, he added.
Another factor that complicated matters is one that seems almost obvious: the pandemic. People had the information thrown their way, but they lost out on casual discussions with colleagues and friends that could have helped sway them in one direction or another, Horowitz said. Think of it as the water-cooler effect.
“They didn’t have the opportunity for casual discussions on this. Those types of conversations probably didn’t happen,” he said.
When people discussed politics ahead of Election Day, the presidency tended to dominate conversations rather than local issues.
The lack of in-person discussions could have made the difference between the current results — 54.9% to 45% among those who voted — and a landslide like what Question 1 proponents saw. Or it could have driven support for the “yes” side, at least shrinking the margin between the “yes” and “no” votes.
Evan Falchuk, the chair of the Yes on 2 campaign, said he hosted parties before the pandemic and had people vote their favorite bourbon to understand ranked-choice voting. That was no longer an option come mid-March.
“That hurt. That definitely hurt," he said. “If we had had the opportunity to reach out to more people in those communities where we did not get as many folks as we needed, we could have seen a result.”
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