Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday he will vote against the state’s ranked-choice voting ballot measure, making the Swampscott Republican the most high-profile public official to come out against Question 2 with just days left before Election Day.
In a joint statement with Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, Baker said they believe “the system we have now has served the Commonwealth well" and they will not support the initiative, which would alter how Massachusetts voters pick candidates for a variety of federal and state offices, including governor.
“At a time when we need to be promoting turnout and making it easier for voters to cast their ballots, we worry that [Question 2] will add an additional layer of complication for both voters and election officials, while potentially delaying results and increasing the cost of elections," their statement said.
Baker’s stance puts him at odds with several high-ranking Massachusetts Democrats, who have pushed ranked-choice voting as an antidote to crowded elections being decided with small pluralities.
As proposed on the November 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.
Maine is the only state currently using ranked-choice voting, though voters in Massachusetts and Alaska both are weighing statewide initiatives this fall.
The proposal appears to have deeply divided the electorate. A University of Massachusetts Amherst/WCVB poll released Monday found that 48 percent of likely voters say they planned to vote in favor, compared to 43 percent who said they would vote against it. Nine percent said they were not sure.
How much Baker’s announcement moves undecided voters or others remains to be seen, including so deep into an unprecedented season of voting. As of Tuesday, more than 1.8 million people had already cast ballots by mail or at an early voting site in Massachusetts, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the state’s registered voters.
It’s also unclear how actively, if at all, Baker would campaign against the initiative. His administration has been consumed with responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and Baker has shown little appetite for public-facing politicking, including declining to say who he’d back for president beyond reiterating that he “cannot support” President Trump.
Speaking later at an unrelated State House news conference, Baker said that with the state’s expanded mail-in voting law and the new deadlines it creates — any ballots received by Nov. 6 and postmarked by Nov. 3 can still be counted — election officials are already getting a taste of a “complicated election administratively" under current rules.
“The counting process alone can get unbelievably difficult,” he said of ranked-choice voting, adding that he fears the added rounds of tabulation, and the extra time needed to do it, could undercut confidence in the state’s elections.
“I don’t want to overly complicate that process to such an extent that people start to wonder, ‘You know, what is it that’s actually going on here?’” he said.
The ballot question’s backers dismissed such criticisms, arguing that it’s been used in Maine and nearly 20 other cities or counties — plus other countries — without reports of significant confusion.
“Somehow all those people can handle ranking things but Massachusetts voters can’t? Please,” Jesse Mermell, a former congressional candidate and senior advisor to the Yes on 2 committee, wrote Tuesday on Twitter.
Supporters say a ranked-choice voting system would allow those with the broadest level of support to win, not just those who eke out a plurality, and can eliminate so-called spoiler candidates in large fields. Proponents also argue it provides a disincentive for negative campaigning by prodding candidates to appeal to a larger swath of voters who could rank them as their second choice.
Shortly after Baker’s campaign released his statement, the Yes on 2 committee released its own, reiterating several of its high-profile endorsements, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Representative Ayanna Pressley. Former governors Deval Patrick, a Democrat, and William F. Weld, a Republican for whom Baker served as a cabinet secretary, are also supporting it.
The ballot measure also has drawn hefty financial backing from several wealthy, out-of-state advocates who have helped seed similar efforts around the country.
The conservative-led Massachusetts Republican Party, which has increasingly been at odds with the more moderate Baker, has come out against the measure, and a little-funded committee led by a Westford Republican has sprung up to formally oppose it, similarly arguing the measure could confuse some voters.
State officials have not provided estimates on what they believe it would cost to run ranked-choice elections. In Maine, state officials said the system added roughly $442,000 in costs in 2018, the first year ranked-choice voting was used there.
A Baker aide said the governor has not yet taken a position on the state’s other November ballot question, an expensive and hotly debated measure that seeks to expand the state’s so-called Right to Repair law.