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After centuries of picking one candidate per office, should voters rank their preferences instead?

A roll of "I voted today" stickers sat on a table at Town Hall in Richmond this year.
A roll of "I voted today" stickers sat on a table at Town Hall in Richmond this year.Stephanie Zollshan/The Berkshire Eagle via AP

Beyond picking winners this fall, Massachusetts voters will be asked to consider something very meta: Should they change how they choose them?

After centuries of residents picking one candidate per office, a question on November’s ballot proposes they instead rank their preferred choices in both primary and general elections for an array of elected seats. Should it pass, Massachusetts would have the second statewide — and most extensive — ranked-choice voting system of its kind in the country.

Implementing the new system would mean the person who receives the most first-place votes in a race with several candidates could, in fact, lose. If there is no candidate with a majority of votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and his or her voters’ second and subsequent choices are re-distributed.

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Such a process, its supporters say, allows those with the broadest level of support to win, not just those who eke out a plurality. It also would fundamentally alter the state’s elections process when ballot access and representation are already under intense scrutiny.

The initiative, listed as Question 2 on the ballot, has been endorsed by more than half of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, the head of the Boston’s NAACP branch, and former governors Deval Patrick, a Democrat, and Bill Weld, a Republican. The Ranked Choice Voting 2020 Committee behind the initiative is well funded, taking at least $1 million in donations from out-of-state groups, including one founded by a billionaire and former Enron trader. No formal opposition group has lined up against it.

And the concept appears to be gaining momentum in the Northeast, winning overwhelming approval from New York City voters in November.

But while having voters rank their choices has roots in other countries, and even in Hollywood’s Oscar voting, there are divergent studies about its impact on minority candidates and Black voters. There are also arguments about whether a more complicated voting system would turn off the electorate, undercutting its theoretical benefits.

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“I’m not sure it’s a bad idea. I’m just not sure it’s a good idea enough to vote on it,” said Eitan Hersh, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University who studies voting rights and the administration of elections. “There’s a million caveats.”

Ranked-choice voting, otherwise known as instant-runoff voting, is straightforward on its face. Voters rank one or more candidates on their ballot, and if a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she is the winner. But if no one does, the candidate with the fewest votes is stripped away, and those voters are reallocated based on their second choice.

The process goes for as many rounds as it takes for one candidate to earn more than 50 percent.

The new system, if approved by voters on Nov. 3, would be used for primary and general elections for statewide offices — governor, attorney general, and more — as well as legislative, congressional, and district attorney offices starting in 2022. It would not apply to presidential elections or municipal elections, supporters say.

It’s also not theoretical. Two years after voters in Maine adopted ranked-choice voting in 2016, making it the first state in the country to do so, Representative Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, lost his seat to Democrat Jared Golden despite getting more first-place votes. Poliquin failed to reach a majority, and Golden later prevailed, boosted by second- and third-place votes from those whose first choice were two independent candidates.

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The system is designed to help eliminate “spoilers” — those third-party candidates who pull enough votes from one candidate that it throws the election to another. Pam Wilmot, of Common Cause Massachusetts, said it also provides a disincentive for negative campaigning, prodding candidates to appeal to a broader base of voters.

“We will be a leader in the nation if we adopt this,” Wilmot said. “It’s not an effort that helps Democrats or helps Republicans or plays into that partisan divide. It’s about electing the candidate that has the most support.”

In Massachusetts, Democratic primaries for open seats often draw an array of candidates, who in many cases don’t win a majority. Representative Lori Trahan won her 2018 Democratic primary with less than 22 percent of the vote, and Representative Katherine Clark won a 2013 special primary with less than 32 percent. A similar fate likely awaits this year’s nine-person Democratic primary in the Fourth Congressional District.

Representative Ayanna Pressley, who co-sponsored federal ranked-choice voting legislation, said it’s an important part of having a government that “most accurately reflects the will of every voter.” The ballot can be more complicated — “It can look a little like an SAT test,” Wilmot said — but supporters dismissed concerns that it’s overly complex.

“No disrespect to the people of Maine, they’re no smarter than we are here in Massachusetts,” said Evan Falchuk, a former third-party gubernatorial candidate and chairman of the Ranked Choice Voting 2020 Committee. “It’s simple, it’s fair.”

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Not to everyone. In Maine, there has been a stream of litigation and ballot questions targeting the system, including one pushed by the state’s Republican Party to delay a law expanding ranked-choice voting to presidential elections.

Few discount that the switch to ranked-choice voting can help the viability of third-party candidates, who voters may feel more comfortable backing if they’re assured their vote won’t be “wasted” on a candidate unlikely to win.

But Republicans are often less worried about “third-party clones” eating into their support, said Jason Sorens, director for Center for Ethics in Business and Governance at Saint Anselm College. “The vote-splitting issue, to the extent that it exists, tends to help Republicans,” he said.

Jim Lyons, chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, argued that ranked-choice voting would “delegitimize our elections.”

“One person, one vote. That’s the bedrock of American elections,” Lyons said.

It could also add costs for election officials, who likely would have to purchase new software and ensure ballots are processed at a central facility for races requiring multiple rounds. Recounts, such as the near weeklong one confirming Trahan’s primary victory, could be more complex, potentially extending the already time-consuming process.

“Without some voter outreach and investing both time and money . . . you won’t have a system that improves much on what we already have,” said Jesse Clark, a PhD candidate at MIT who’s closely studied ranked-choice voting.

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Nonetheless, unlike other major ballot question initiatives, no formal committee has organized to oppose the question. The Ranked Choice Voting 2020 Committee, meanwhile, is planning to launch television, radio, and digital advertising ahead of Election Day, according to Falchuk, and it already raised and spent more than $1.1 million by the end of 2019, the most recently available records show.

That included taking $800,000 from Action Now Initiative, which was founded by John Arnold, a former energy hedge fund manager and Enron trader, and has spread money to similar efforts around the country. Unite America’s PAC — which has taken $3.8 million this cycle from Kathryn Murdoch, the daughter-in-law of Rupert Murdoch — gave it another $250,000 last year.

It’s only on the ballot now after not moving for years in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, where Wilmot, of Common Cause, suggested such an overhaul can be “threatening” to incumbents, who control the flow of bills.

Should the ballot question pass, it also remains to be seen whether state lawmakers rework major parts of it or delay it, as they’ve famously done for other voter-approved laws.

“We’re still trying to understand how this really works and whether a place like Massachusetts could handle it,” said state Senator Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat and co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Election Laws. “I still feel like we don’t have all the data.”

Available research has offered seemingly disparate conclusions, particularly the system’s effect on candidates and voters of colors. Jason McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, found in a 2016 study that the implementation of instant-runoff voting in mayoral elections in the city helped drive down turnout, including among Black voters.

But FairVote, a nonprofit that is pushing ranked choice nationally, found in a 2018 study of ranked-choice elections in four California cities that the percentage of minority candidates who won their races increased.

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said ranked-choice voting, or RCV, can make elections more fair and inclusive.

“RCV can help increase the diversity of candidates,” she said, “both running and winning elections.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout