Across the country, nearly 1,000 people are dying each day from COVID-19, an infectious disease that should have been under control by now. The economy is being squeezed to its breaking point. The fight for racial justice has reached an inflection point and demands bold action. And from postal sabotage to old-fashioned voter purges, voting — the very foundation of our democracy and an essential instrument for change — is under siege.
To defend our democracy, we need to fortify it. One way is by strengthening the principle of majority rule while defending and protecting the rights of all individuals, including those in the minority. Massachusetts voters have a chance to do just that in November by approving ranked-choice voting on Question 2.
Although many people believe that majority rule is a core part of what it means to be a democracy, numerous examples show why this isn’t the case in the American system of government. In two of the last five presidential elections, the antiquated Electoral College system has propelled two popular-vote losers (George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016) to the Oval Office. The Senate is still tied up in knots with the anti-majoritarian filibuster rule. And, in far too many other races, elected officials win not because they actually earn anything near a majority of the votes but because they collect a few more votes than the runners-up. That is how the current plurality system works.
To fix this, communities across the country — from Maine to California, and even here in Amherst and Cambridge — have taken steps to safeguard our democracy by adopting ranked-choice voting.
So how does ranked-choice voting work? Under the current plurality system, each voter is allowed to vote for only one candidate, and the candidate who receives the most votes is elected — period. That works fine when only two candidates are on the ballot. But in a big field of candidates, particularly in a primary, this means that someone with 30, 20, or even 10 percent of the vote could be declared the winner simply because the remaining 70, 80 or 90 percent of the votes are scattered to many different candidates.
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank their choices among as many of the candidates as they want, and no candidate is declared the winner until someone receives more than 50 percent of the votes. The ballots are counted for everyone’s first choice. If no one has a majority, the votes for the candidate who finished last are then distributed to voters’ second-ranked candidate. If a candidate breaks the 50 percent threshold, the winner is declared. If not, then the votes of the remaining candidate at the bottom are reallocated to those voters' next choice — and so on until someone gets a majority.
By requiring the winner to reach more than 50 percent of the vote, ranked-choice voting ensures the winning candidate is the one with the broadest appeal to the majority of voters. The ability to mobilize the broadest and deepest appeal across the electorate would replace the ability to target a passionate minority constituency, which may be extreme or nonrepresentative from the standpoint of most voters as the key to winning.
Today’s elections host some of the largest and most diverse candidate fields — and that’s great. But in the current plurality system, large fields split up common voting blocs. So most voters might overwhelmingly prefer to elect identified environmentalists to their town council, and a dozen environmentalists might show up to vie for that spot — but as the green dozen divides up the majority of votes, a single pro-fossil-fuel candidate who stirs up antienvironmental sentiment could win with only a small fraction of total votes cast.
Ranked-choice voting has another remarkable virtue: Everywhere it has been adopted, it has replaced the politics of personal destruction with positive coalition politics. If two like-minded candidates are running against each other in a large field, they are more likely to work for the second and third choices of their opponent’s supporters by appealing to what they have in common rather than focusing on divisive issues.
For everyone who worries that they won’t know enough about every candidate to rank multiple candidates, they can leave the other options blank. If that voter’s choices don’t make it into the final round, then that voter is no worse off under RCV than under the current system.
Ranked-choice voting can make our elections more positive and require successful candidates to build broad coalitions. It can ensure that everyone’s vote counts and open the door to elections that more fairly represent the electorate. Most important, ranked-choice voting can make sure that the winning candidates have successfully appealed to the majority of the voters. That’s a stronger democracy.
Elizabeth Warren is the senior US senator from Massachusetts. Jamie Raskin is a US representative from Maryland.