New analysis explores risks, benefits of ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts

Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University’s Tisch College weighs the evidence and provides non-partisan assessment on Massachusetts Question 2
A hand chooses between yes or no
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September 29, 2020

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MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. (September 29, 2020)—A new report from the Center for State Policy Analysis (cSPA) at Tufts University’s Tisch College, released today, analyzes the benefits and potential drawbacks of ranked-choice voting in the Commonwealth. The analysis comes as Massachusetts voters prepare for a November 2020 referendum question that would change the way people vote, with implications for how candidates campaign and how victors are chosen after an election.

Question 2 on this year's ballot would implement ranked-choice voting for a large swath of state and federal elections, allowing voters to rank more than one candidate, rather than merely picking their favorite. According to cSPA, this ranking approach has some genuine advantages, including letting voters express their full range of preferences. However, it also brings new logistical complexity and could be vulnerable to a constitutional challenge.

Before deciding how to vote on Question 2, Massachusetts residents should consider the following benefits and risks:

  • Under the state’s current system, winning candidates sometimes end up with a surprisingly small share of votes. For example, in one hotly contested 2020 Massachusetts congressional primary, the winner had just 22.4 percent of the vote. This could not happen under ranked choice, where a multi-round counting process transfers votes from uncompetitive candidates to more viable contenders until someone gets over 50 percent of the votes.
     
  • The current system sometimes discourages voters from supporting their real favorites. For instance, if a voter’s preferred candidate has low polling numbers, they may feel pressure to back someone seen as more competitive. Under ranked choice, the decision is not as stark. Voters can rank their favorite candidate first, while also putting other, potentially more viable candidates high in their ranking.
     
  • There may be a constitutional problem with ballot question 2, affecting a subset of elections. The Massachusetts Constitution states that, in general elections for state officers, "the person having the highest number of votes shall be deemed and declared to be elected.” But under ranked choice, the candidate with the most initial votes does not necessarily win. Such uncertainty could lead to disruptive legal challenges.
     
  • Moving to a new voting system would require not just a reorganization of election logistics, but also a meaningful change in the way voters think about candidates and prepare for Election Day.
     
  • Results would likely take more time to tabulate, as the counting process is more involved for ranked-choice elections. In some cases, ballots may have to be shipped to a central location before counting can begin.
     
  • Many claims about the costs and benefits of ranked choice are based on limited evidence. This includes arguments about likely turnout, new types of candidates, campaign spending and the impact on minority groups.

The policy brief describes each of these issues in greater detail. Read the full report here.

“It makes sense for voters to be deciding this issue, which is fundamentally about how they will vote in the future and how their votes will be tabulated," said Evan Horowitz, executive director of cSPA. "Ultimately, it's a question of what they want from the state's election system — the opportunity to better express their preferences or the surety and familiarity of a system most of us have known our whole lives."

The Center for State Policy Analysis remains committed to providing expert, nonpartisan analysis of legislative proposals and ballot questions in Massachusetts. In the coming days, it will release a similar paper covering Massachusetts Question 1, on Right to Repair.

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About Tufts University

Tufts University, located on campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville and Grafton, Massachusetts, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.