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OPINION

A vote for equity at the polls

Ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts will encourage candidates from a broader array of backgrounds to run for office and give voters the freedom to support them.

Ranked-choice voting would level the political field and provide equity at the polls.
Ranked-choice voting would level the political field and provide equity at the polls.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/file

The people of Massachusetts deserve responsive, accountable government that reflects our rich diversity. Ranked-choice voting will deliver the substantive, lasting change we need.

The United States is in the midst of a cultural and political reckoning. Citizens across the country are rejecting the status quo, making their voices heard as they fight for responsive government from city hall to the White House. The coronavirus pandemic, economic collapse, and protests against systemic racism all require effective responses from leaders at all levels government.

On Nov. 3, voters will have the opportunity to choose leaders who listen and act. Massachusetts voters will also have an opportunity to amplify their voices for future elections by voting “yes” on Question 2, ranked-choice voting.

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Currently, a Massachusetts voter picks only one candidate for each office on the ballot. In contrast, RCV allows voters to rank all of the candidates running for a given office. People have the option to pick a first, a second, and a third choice, and so on. If one candidate wins a majority of the votes in the first round of vote-counting, that candidate wins the election. But if no candidate wins a majority, the candidate who received the fewest votes in the first round is eliminated. That candidate’s votes are then redistributed to each voter’s second choice candidate. This process of elimination and vote distribution continues until one candidate earns support from a true majority.

Massachusetts is a relatively diverse state, but our leadership is not. The 11-member congressional delegation has seven men and four women; Representative Ayanna Pressley is the sole person of color in the delegation. The Legislature and local elected officials reflect the same lack of diversity. Ranked-choice voting would produce leaders who better represent our electorate and strengthen decision-making and fairness in Massachusetts.

Research on four San Francisco Bay area communities, which have recently implemented ranked choice, found that this voting system increased candidates of color from 17 percent to over 25 percent; RCV also increased the probability of a female candidate winning from 40 percent to 44 percent — small numbers, but a meaningful increase in opportunity.

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In Maine, which adopted ranked-choice voting in 2016, the summer 2020 primaries had much higher turnout than in previous years: a 59 percent increase in the Republican primary in the Second Congressional District and a 23 percent increase in the Democratic Senate primary. Ranked-choice voting has, in other words, been consistent with drawing more voices into politics.

The current election system favors established insider candidates with name recognition and support from wealthy donors. Voters hesitate to back outsider candidates — often women and people of color — for fear that supporting the outsider will hurt the candidate whom they view as the “lesser of two evils” among the more established candidates. This has long been the plight of outsider candidates in primary elections and third-party candidates in general elections. But since the ranked-choice system empowers voters to support multiple candidates for one office, voters can choose underdogs without feeling like they’re throwing away their vote for someone with a slim chance of winning. Ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts will encourage candidates from a broader array of backgrounds to run for office and give voters the freedom to support them.

In addition to leveling the playing field for outsider candidates, it stands to reason RCV may also reduce negative campaigning. Candidates will want to win not just first-choice votes, but also second- and third-choice votes. That makes them less likely to demonize their opponents since, after all, they want to pick up those opponents’ voters too, even if they are viewed as a second or third choice for those voters. Candidates have to focus on coalition building and connecting with as many voters as possible in order to win. Replacing divisive, attack-oriented candidates with leaders who know how to build coalitions and actually represent the will of the majority will help restore functionality to legislative bodies that have for too long now been paralyzed by angry partisanship.

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A Rutgers University survey in cities with ranked-choice systems found that likely voters in those municipalities were happier with the conduct of candidates. Only 53 percent of respondents recalled candidates criticizing each other, in contrast to 65 percent in cities where voters select only their first choice.

RCV will deliver officials who better represent their communities, who will listen and seek allies, and who will build coalitions in support of effective governance. It will also deliver fairness by leveling the playing field, especially for women and candidates of color. It will ensure that all Massachusetts voters are equally represented.

Danielle Allen is a professor at Harvard University and director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. She is cochair of the “Yes on 2” campaign.

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