In April of last year, John Arnold warned in a Houston Chronicle op-ed that democracy at the local level was in “crisis.” A former energy hedge fund manager and Enron trader turned philanthropist, Arnold argued that a ranked-choice voting system, in place of runoff or two-round elections, could help spur more competition and, perhaps, voter interest.
“Houston,” the billionaire wrote of his hometown, “should aim to lead the way in bringing it to Texas.”
Eighteen months later, it’s voters in Massachusetts and Alaska — not Texas — weighing whether to push into a new frontier of voting this November. It’s also still Arnold helping drive the case for why they should.
Arnold and his wife, Laura, are among a network of wealthy out-of-state donors helping fuel ranked-choice voting ballot initiatives in Massachusetts and beyond, by seeding local committees with millions of dollars and, in the Arnolds’ case, buttressing research on the system’s potential impact.
Through their Action Now Initiative, the Arnolds have committed nearly $3.4 million in support of the Massachusetts ballot proposal, known as Question 2. Kathryn Murdoch, the daughter-in-law of Rupert Murdoch, has personally given $2.5 million since early September. The Denver-based nonpartisan group Unite America, which she co-chairs and has seeded with millions toward supporting democratic reforms, has contributed $445,000.
Neither the Arnolds nor Murdoch agreed to interview requests sent through the respective organizations they lead, which instead offered on-the-record statements.
In all, of the $9.8 million the Yes on 2 committee has raised, just 19 donors — 12 of whom hail from outside Massachusetts — gave a combined $9.2 million. Donors outside the state make up 84 percent of all the cash it has reportedly collected.
It’s a similar story elsewhere. In Alaska, where voters are weighing a three-pronged initiative, including using ranked-choice voting in general elections, the Arnolds and Unite America have given a combined $4.6 million, the vast majority of what Alaskans for Better Elections has raised.
The Arnolds also put more than $1 million behind two separate, and successful, ranked-choice voting efforts in Maine, as well as $1 million more in the successful effort last year to adopt it in New York City, making Action Now Initiative its leading donor.
That financial heft underscores the intense interest, and faith, that national advocates say they have in the system, as well as the role that states, including Massachusetts, could play as a bellwether in its adoption on a wider scale. Fewer than 20 cities or counties currently use ranked-choice voting, and Maine is the only state where it is deployed for statewide and federal races.
“We’re a very important bell cow,” said Michael Porter, a Harvard University professor, Brookline resident, and, with $450,000 in donations, Yes on 2′s biggest in-state contributor. “I think Massachusetts will be one of the next rounds of states that are serious and are putting this measure in place because we believe that political innovation has to happen in America.”
But the spigot of out-of-state funding has also drawn skepticism from ranked-voice voting’s critics, who have used the heavy reliance on national cash as a key plank in their opposition to something that would have a profound effect on Massachusetts elections.
It remains to be seen whether that sways voters’ feelings for the ballot question, which has run even or ahead in scant public polling.
“Money flows around the political system all the time. This thing will either win or lose on the strength or weakness of the arguments, and whether, more broadly, people view it as a solution to a problem that exists,” said Jack Santucci, an assistant teaching professor at Drexel University who has researched ranked-choice voting. “You can’t create demand for this stuff. And you can’t purchase demand for it.”
As proposed in Question 2 on Massachusetts' ballot, ranked-choice elections would give voters the option of ranking candidates for an office in order of preference. If a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, 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 to the remaining candidates based on their second choice.
The process goes for as many rounds as it takes for one candidate to earn a majority of votes.
If approved, the new system would be used for primary and general elections for statewide offices — governor, attorney general, and more — as well as congressional, state legislative, and district attorney offices starting in 2022. It would not apply to presidential elections or municipal elections.
The Arnolds’ group began seeding such efforts beginning in Maine, struck by what it has described as paralysis in lawmaking and frustration with the status quo.
Sam Mar, a vice president at Arnold Ventures, said that in Massachusetts and elsewhere, the Arnolds donated money because there already was a base of local support and volunteers behind the ranked-choice initiatives.
“Ultimately we’re all part of this country, and we should all be pitching in to help voters strengthen our democracy, regardless of where we live,” Mar said.
That has included pumping money into political reform research, including $500,000 to the think tank New America. (Santucci, the Drexel professor, is among the researchers who have a contract with New America, under which he is studying whether ranked-choice voting promotes more women and people of color to run.)
The Arnolds also aren’t strangers to Massachusetts’ political landscape.
In 2016, John Arnold gave $250,000 to an unsuccessful effort to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts, and they poured more than $500,000 into a PAC that helped bolster Governor Charlie Baker’s reelection in 2018. Last year, Patients For Affordable Drugs Now, a bipartisan political group that the couple has funded, put hundreds of thousands of dollars into an ad campaign backing a Baker proposal to control prescription drug costs.
Those helping lead the ranked-choice ballot initiative argue that despite the out-of-state help, the push is rooted in local support. Evan Falchuk, Yes on 2′s chairman, said he first joined the effort in 2017, and the ballot question has the backing of prominent Massachusetts officials, from former governors Deval Patrick and William F. Weld to Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, among others.
Plus, the committee directly solicited the out-of-state financial help, said Mike Zarren, the assistant general manager of the Boston Celtics and a Yes on 2 board member.
“We reached out to a bunch of democracy activists. They all didn’t find us,” Zarren said, arguing that the outside donors have no financial incentive to see ranked-choice voting pass. “If you care about this nationally, you sort of have to do it state by state.“
Still, the zip code of the donors has provided a consistent rallying cry for its opponents.
“Why are they so interested in Massachusetts voting system?” said Anthony Amore, a former Republican candidate for secretary of state who has acted as an informal volunteer spokesman for the committee opposed to Question 2. Asked what he believes the motivation is, Amore said he is hesitant to speculate.
“It should give people pause, as it should for any political candidate or ballot initiative, of who is funding it,” he said.
Some Democrats, too, have preached wariness. Kevin Connor, an aide to state Senator Harriette L. Chandler, warned in a Commonwealth Magazine op-ed that Murdoch’s endorsement of ranked-choice voting as a way to help alleviate extreme partisanship “erases the impact of progressive champions like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley.”
He added that “for Massachusetts progressives fighting the status quo, a voting regime that drags election results to the center should be viewed with skepticism — especially when moneyed interests are so supportive.”
Nick Troiano, the executive director of Unite America, which Murdoch co-chairs, said in a statement that it is backing ranked-choice in Massachusetts because it can give voters “more power in their elections and more choice on their ballot.”
The narrative isn’t limited to Massachusetts. In right-leaning Alaska, the state Republican Party, as well as groups such as Planned Parenthood, oppose the ballot measure there, which also would create so-called open, or nonpartisan, primaries.
Alaskans, known for their libertarian and independent streak, often bristle at the specter of outside influences, said Alex Hirsch, an associate professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“If outside money gets identified as an influential force,” Hirsch said, “that often backfires.”
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified John and Laura Arnold’s connection to Patients For Affordable Drugs Now. The couple is the group’s principal funder.