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Ranked-choice voting debated as referendum nears

Question 2, on ranked-choice voting, will be on the Nov. 3 ballot in Massachusetts.Bill Sikes/Associated Press

Midway through a virtual debate over ranked-choice voting Thursday, moderator Sue O’Connell joked that the event had found its “drinking-game word”: exhausted. As in ballots.

Such are the complexities involved in potentially reshaping the very nature of how we vote.

Question 2 on November’s ballot asks if Massachusetts voters should alter the state’s election system by adopting ranked-choice voting. Instead of picking one candidate per office, voters would rank their preferred choices in both primary and general elections for an array of state and federal seats.

Under the system, a candidate who receives more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes is declared the winner. But if no one wins a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those voters are reallocated to the remaining candidates, based on their second choice. The process continues for as many rounds as it takes for a candidate to receive more than 50 percent of the vote.

Supporters, including a former third-party gubernatorial candidate, Evan Falchuk, hail the system as a vast improvement over Massachusetts’ current plurality system. Ranked-choice voting, he said, can eliminate the potential for “spoiler” candidates, encourage candidates to appeal to voters beyond their bases, and ensure winners ultimately receive a majority.


Opponents, including the attorney Jennifer C. Braceras, warn it introduces a new layer of complexity that will confuse some voters and raises the prospect of ballots going uncounted, or “exhausted,” the deeper the tabulation process goes.

That granular focus at times dominated their hourlong debate, hosted by Boston College Law School’s Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy and moderated by O’Connell, of NECN.

Because voters are not required to rank every candidate under the proposed system, it’s possible a ballot won’t factor into the final tally of a race — if the voter’s preferred choice is eliminated and he or she did not rank any of the remaining candidates.


“That can happen," said Falchuk, chairman of the Ranked Choice Voting 2020 Committee. But he said it’s essentially true in the current system, in which crowded fields, such as this year’s Fourth Congressional District Democratic primary, ultimately come down to a race between two candidates, each with a sliver of the electorate’s support.

“What we ought to have is a system where you get to rank your choices and where we can get a reflection of the true will of the voters," he said.

But Braceras said that ranked-choice voting makes the process more complicated, which “hurts our democracy." She also doubted that voters have the bandwidth to learn enough about a large field of candidates to rank them with confidence.

“It exacerbates a problem that already exists,” Braceras said. “It certainly doesn’t fix it. I think it’s best when voters have a chance to make a binary choice."

If approved by voters, the new system would be used for primary and general elections for statewide offices — governor, attorney general, and more — as well as congressional and state legislative offices, starting in 2022. The system, also known as instant-runoff voting, would not be used in presidential or municipal elections.

Braceras acknowledged some of the system’s benefits, such as encouraging candidates to appeal to voters who may already back another opponent but could rank them second. At one point, she quipped that she was playing “devil’s advocate to myself” in agreeing that dynamic is playing out in the US Senate race in Maine, which features two independent candidates, including a former Green Party member. (Maine began using ranked-choice voting in statewide and congressional races in 2018.)


“Our current system does need some repairs; it’s not perfect,” she said. “Neither is ranked-choice voting.”

Falchuk conceded as much, but said the committee does not see ranked-choice as a panacea. “This does not solve all of our problems," he said. "It is something we can do today, now, to make things better.”

The debate offered a spirited discussion on the ballot question, whose supporters have raised millions. The committee backing the question has raised more than $7.9 million, mostly from out-of-state donors such as Action Now Initiative, which was founded by John Arnold of Texas, a former energy hedge fund manager and Enron trader, and has donated more than $3 million.

The committee has reported spending more than $4.9 million, including $1.9 million on television and digital advertising, and counts former governors Deval Patrick, a Democrat, and Bill Weld, a Republican, as supporters, along with the state Democratic, Libertarian, and Green Rainbow parties.

A group dubbed the No Ranked Choice Voting Committee 2020 has raised about $2,900 since it registered with state officials in late August.

Braceras is also a board member for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative group whose foundation arm is part of a ranked-choice opposition effort known as Protect My Ballot. Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, which in the past has fought against disclosing its donors, has not officially put contributions behind the ballot committee effort.


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