Frequently Asked Questions
With a few exceptions, the ballot initiative would enact Ranked Choice Voting for all state and federal elections in Massachusetts, both primaries and general elections. That includes all state legislative seats, county offices like district attorney and sheriff, statewide seats like governor, and federal congressional and senate seats.
RCV would not apply to the presidential election or primary or to city or town elections.
Why? Presidential elections were excluded in order to focus our efforts on fixing Massachusetts elections first. City and town elections were excluded, because we felt that decision is best left for the individual municipalities (and several have already enacted or are seriously considering RCV). We believe all elections should eventually use RCV and that the set of elections included in our ballot initiative represents the best first step in that direction.
Under Ranked Choice Voting, every voter gets exactly one vote, and each vote is treated equally. As in an in-person runoff election, a vote under RCV initially counts for the voter’s first choice, and if that candidate is eliminated, for the voter’s next choice still in the running. In fact, the academic name for RCV is the “single transferable vote” — emphasis on single — and the value of that single vote does not change at any stage in the process.
Every court to decide the issue has agreed that Ranked Choice Voting gives each vote equal weight. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled on the question twice in fact. First in 1941, in Moore vs Election Commissioners of Cambridge:
“Each duly qualified voter has the same right to mark and cast his ballot as every other duly qualified voter. Each duly qualified voter has the same right as any other such voter to one and only one effective vote for a candidate.”
Then again in 1996, in McSweeney vs City of Cambridge, the court reaffirmed the broader constitutional claim of Moore:
“[A] preferential scheme, far from seeking to infringe on each citizen’s equal franchise, … seeks more accurately to reflect voter sentiment … This purpose is not a derogation from the principle of equality but an attempt to reflect it with more exquisite accuracy.”
At the federal level, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concurred in 2011, writing unanimously in Dudum v. Arntz:
“In fact, the option to rank multiple preferences is not the same as providing additional votes, or more heavily-weighted votes, relative to other votes cast. Each ballot is counted as no more than one vote at each tabulation step, … and each vote attributed to a candidate, whether a first-, second- or third-rank choice, is afforded the same mathematical weight in the election.”
Misconceptions about unequal treatment under RCV may stem from the fact that some voters rank fewer candidates than others. RCV gives all voters the equal option to rank the candidates, but it doesn’t force them to. That’s no different than our current elections, in which voters are allowed to choose a candidate but may also leave a contest entirely blank if they choose. In both cases, voters retain their equal right to abstain from making a preference.
After the historic use of Ranked Choice Voting in the 2018 congressional election in Maine, the issue was reviewed yet again by a federal court. In Baber v Dunlap, the US District Court of Maine concluded:
“ ‘One person, one vote’ does not stand in opposition to ranked balloting.”
And no court has ever found otherwise.
No. RCV elects a candidate preferred by a majority of voters, regardless of whether that majority prefers a Democrat, Republican, independent, or minor party candidate. It has been enacted in Democratically-controlled New York City, Republican-controlled Utah, and the Independent-heavy “purple” state of Maine. It has been endorsed by both the Minnesota Democratic Party and the Alaskan Republican Party. It is used by students on college campuses and by military and overseas voters in the southern states of Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Our movement for Ranked Choice Voting in Massachusetts includes members of every political persuasion, all coming together to enact a reform that gives more power to voters, not any particular party.
RCV is literally as easy as 1-2-3. Ample evidence from RCV use in the United States shows that voters of all backgrounds fill out their ranked ballots correctly and effectively.
In Maine’s first RCV Democratic primary, about 87% of all voters chose to rank multiple candidates, as did 86% of voters in San Francisco’s RCV mayoral race. As a result, a full 93% of valid ballots in Maine and 91% of ballots in San Francisco continued to the final round, meaning far more voters had a say in choosing between the two front-runners. The most comprehensive study of voter behavior in RCV elections, which compared elections in eight cities with RCV to 21 similar cities without RCV, found that voters filled out ranked ballots as accurately as they do plurality ballots.
Knowing that you’ll be able to cast a vote that counts is a great incentive to vote. In 2017, all four US cities that held RCV contests — Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Cambridge, and Takoma Park — saw remarkably high turnout. In 2018, San Francisco and Santa Fe saw their highest turnout for mayor in 15 years. At a time when municipal election turnout is declining nationally, cities with RCV have seen their turnout on the upswing.
The Secretary of State’s office will retain discretion on logistical details, but we expect first-choice votes to be counted in their precincts and reported on election night, just like plurality results are reported today. If any candidate has an outright majority of those first choices, we will know the winner then and there. If no candidate has a majority of first choices, then over the next few days the Secretary of State will collect the full ranking data from the cities and towns and conduct an “instant runoff” to decide the winner.
There are two forms of Ranked Choice Voting: one for electing a single candidate, and another for electing multiple candidates at once, which Cambridge uses to elect its city council and school committee. Our ballot initiative would enact RCV for state and federal offices in Massachusetts that are filled by single-winner elections, so it does not include the multi-winner variant as used in Cambridge.
It is easy for clerks to administer a Ranked Choice Voting election. The State of Maine administered its first statewide Ranked Choice Voting election on June 12th, 2018, and the process went smoothly. In the video below, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap explains the logistics and costs around running their first statewide RCV election. State and local staff relied on their existing ballot machines, had about three months of preparation, incurred a total of $102,653 in additional cost ($1.4 million less than anticipated), ran an election with no significant problems, and reported final results in five business days. Watch Secretary Dunlap’s presentation.
RCV elections in Massachusetts would be just as secure as existing plurality elections. The key security safeguards we have in place today would continue unaltered by a move to RCV. In fact, RCV actually offers an opportunity for greater transparency of election data.
Today, all voters in Massachusetts use paper ballots, ensuring every election has a voter-verifiable paper audit trail, and that would continue to be true with RCV elections. DREs (direct-recording electronic machines), which lack a paper trail, are not authorized for use in the state, nor would they be under RCV. Importantly, none of our voting machines are connected to the internet, and RCV would not change that practice either. Lastly, the post-election audits that Massachusetts conducts today are entirely compatible with RCV.
Furthermore, it is common for U.S. jurisdictions using RCV to post their cast vote record online for public inspection and outside analysis, providing a degree of transparency to RCV elections above and beyond most plurality elections. We expect Massachusetts will do the same, should we adopt RCV.
Delayed runoffs and top-two elections offer some advantages over plurality voting. However, compared to Ranked Choice Voting, they limit our options in the voting booth, fail to adequately curb the spoiler effect, exacerbate negative campaigning, and in the case of delayed runoffs, escalate administrative costs and reduce voter turnout.
In a delayed runoff system, if no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the general election, another election is held at a later date between the two highest vote-getters — a costly and burdensome affair for all involved. That additional election roughly doubles administrative costs by requiring new ballots, poll workers, and reconfiguration of the voting equipment. Most importantly, runoffs generally see sharp drops in turnout, because many voters cannot afford to take additional time off for another trip to the polls. By conducting “instant runoffs” using a single ranked ballot instead, RCV elects majority winners based on the preferences of a much larger share of the electorate.
In a “top-two” system, candidates from all political parties and independents compete in a single primary, and the two highest vote-getters face off in the general election. That’s true even if they are from the same party, and even if one secured a majority of the primary vote. Since it does not increase the number of elections, top-two avoids the higher costs and lower turnouts of delayed runoffs. However, if multiple candidates from the same party run in a top-two election, they can split the vote such that none of them reach the general. In the 2012 top-two primary in California’s 31st Congressional district, a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, four Democratic candidates split the vote in such a way that none of them made it to the general election. Republicans have frequently been shut out of top-two general elections in California as well, including in high-profile contests like the 2016 and 2018 US Senate races. The threat of vote-splitting has led parties to pressure some candidates to not run at all, an unfortunate maneuver that limits voter choice.
The “too many candidates” problem illustrates how the spoiler effect still looms large under both delayed runoff and top-two. Sometimes the two highest vote-getters combined don’t even have 50% of the first-round vote, as happened in the 8th district of California in 2012, where no candidate topped 16% in the primary. The vast majority voted for candidates who did not advance to the general election. Here in Massachusetts, where our city elections use top-two, we’ve seen the same problem. In the 2013 preliminary election for Boston mayor, for example, the two finalists combined received only 35% of the vote.
While delayed runoffs and top-two do ultimately elect winners with a majority of the vote, they attain this goal in a crude fashion. Unlike RCV, delayed runoffs and top-two limit the number of candidates in the final, decisive race, thereby restricting the breadth of political debate. They also set up head-to-head slugfests that alienate and divide, as opposed to the more civil, engaging campaigns that emerge under RCV when candidates have to reach beyond their base to build majority support. Democracy is better served by having more voices and choices in our elections, not an arbitrary limit of two.
First and foremost, RCV is tried, tested, and works well in practice. By contrast, approval voting and other alternatives like Score and Condorcet are not used anywhere in the world for single-seat governmental elections, so they remain unproven in real political contexts.
We believe a critical property of any voting system is that a candidate must win the election if they are the first choice of a majority of voters. RCV, Condorcet, and even plurality voting satisfy this property, but approval and score voting do not. In theory, a candidate could be the first choice of 99% of voters and still lose under approval or score.
Another property we consider important is later-no-harm. Later-no-harm means a vote for your second choice cannot hurt your first choice, your third choice cannot hurt your first or second choice, and so on. RCV satisfies later-no-harm, but with other alternatives, a vote for a less-preferred candidate may cause your favorite to lose. As a result, voters feel pressured to “bullet vote” under the other systems and are often lobbied to do so by the campaigns themselves; in time, the elections become not much different than the plurality contests they replaced.
The Condorcet criterion, another important property, states that the candidate who would win a head-to-head race against every other candidate should always be elected. While many systems do not satisfy the Condorcet criterion in every theoretical scenario, in practice RCV has successfully elected the Condorcet candidate in virtually every election.