This fall’s nine-way Democratic primary for the Fourth Congressional District was held up by advocates as the poster child for implementing ranked-choice voting. In that system, supporters argued, Massachusetts could avoid plurality decisions — like Jake Auchincloss’s 22.4 percent victory there — and give voters more choice.
Except, they didn’t want it. Especially in the Fourth.
The Massachusetts electorate on Tuesday rejected a ballot measure that would have implemented ranked-choice voting, known as Question 2, by a 10-point margin, unofficial results show, dealing a blow to a campaign that spent at least $8 million, counted a slew of high-profile Democrats as supporters, and was vying in an election with record turnout.
But those perceived benefits — even in a left-leaning state with liberal ideals — couldn’t overcome what supporters and opponents alike say were dogged questions about the system’s complexity and an embedded uneasiness about electoral upheaval in a political environment already racked with it.
“There’s a progressive consciousness, a collective consciousness, in Massachusetts. But there’s also a reluctance to change,” said Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux, who supported ranked-choice voting but whose city within the Fourth District voted “no” by a 24-point margin.
Of the congressional district’s 34 cities and towns, voters in at least 26 rejected the measure, unofficial data show. In 23 of them, they did so by double-digit margins far above the statewide average.
“A lot of people were just not excited about the issue," Heroux, a Democrat, said. "And a lot of people were probably afraid of change. The status quo seems to work.”
The defeat certainly wasn’t from a lack of trying. The Yes on 2 committee has reported pouring at least $4.4 million into advertising, and another $840,000 into mailings in a bid to directly influence voters.
The campaign also counted 8,000 volunteers, supporters such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Pressley, and at least $10 million in donations, the bulk of which came from out-of-state donors who saw Massachusetts as a potential foothold in expanding ranked-choice voting around the country.
The challenge, they say, was to educate voters. Under the proposed law, instead of picking a single candidate for various offices, voters would have had the option of ranking candidates 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 would then go for as many rounds as it takes for one candidate to earn a majority of votes. Supporters say the process could help eliminate “spoiler” campaigns, and incentivize candidates to avoid negative attacks in order to appeal to a broader electorate.
But beyond Boston, its western suburbs — including progressive strongholds Newton and Brookline in the Fourth District — and parts of the Pioneer Valley, the majority of voters didn’t bite.
“The idea behind it is a reasonable idea, but it’s complex. And many voters didn’t really grasp what it would mean for them and how it operated," said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who has supported the concept of ranked-choice voting but was not actively involved with the campaign. “The more people heard about it, the more they were confused.”
Evan Falchuk, the Yes on 2 committee chairman, said the pandemic, and the human element it sucked from campaigning, undercut many of its plans, including for house parties and creative ways to illustrate how the system works.
“We did them with desserts. I did one with bourbon. But we couldn’t do any of that stuff [with the pandemic],” Falchuk said. “When you’re talking about something that’s a reform, it’s a concept, it’s an idea . . . it takes that kind of relationship-building to share that vision.”
The measure did draw a small, formal opposition group, led by Republican activists, but it had spent just $2,000 by mid-October and operated on a volunteer basis, giving it little of the reach the Yes on 2 committee had.
Governor Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican, offered a high-profile voice against the measure in late October. But the surrogates actively campaigning against it often relied on speaking at public forums or to the press to underscore what they saw as the potential drawbacks.
“People were already in the midst of trying a new voting system out," said Paul Craney, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative nonprofit that opposed the measure. He was referencing the expanded mail-in balloting the state adopted this year.
“I think people were generally satisfied with it, and said, ‘Let’s keep the system we have now, because the modifications seem to be working,' " he said.
Supporters of the ballot question also acknowledged that the committee’s heavy reliance on outsider donors, such as Texas billionaires John and Laura Arnold or Kathryn Murdoch, the daughter-in-law of Rupert Murdoch, may have turned off voters.
Alex Psilakis, the policy manager at MassVOTE, an advocacy group that backed the ballot question, questioned whether a “lack of support at the state level” played a role on top of that. The committee advertised the endorsements of roughly 50 state lawmakers on its website, but many legislative leaders who had long been slow to embrace ranked-choice voting bills did not offer public support.
“You didn’t see a ton of state senators or representatives on the campaign trail. So there was sort of a lack of a unified effort,” Psilakis said. “And I think the perspective of tons of outside money coming in didn’t help this effort either.”
The defeat stood in stark contrast to the runaway adoption of a different, complex ballot question on Tuesday: the initiative to expand the state’s “Right to Repair” law. Roughly 75 percent of voters embraced the measure, which requires automakers to provide independent mechanics with access to wireless mechanical data, known as telematics, starting with model year 2022 cars.
It builds off a 2012 ballot question voters had already passed, giving independent shops the ability to read the diagnostic codes cars spit out. That too was complex, so much so the early focus groups were “painful,” said Mark Horan, who helped consult on the original initiative but was not involved with this year’s.
“No one can really grasp it, but there is a certain intuitive sense that something called 'right to repair,’ which involves you being able to go where you want to fix your car, is enough to say ‘yes,’ ” Horan said.
“It’s an obvious thing: I should be able to go to the mechanic I like to go to,” he added. “It’s not terribly obvious what ranked-choice voting would do for you.”