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A Guide to Massachusetts Question 2: Ranked-Choice Voting

cover of Ranked-Choice Voting report

Question 2 on the November ballot asks Massachusetts voters to consider a major change in the way they vote. It’s an approach called ranked-choice voting, and the key difference is right there in the name: ranking. Unlike the state’s current system, where voters choose a single candidate in each race, ranked choice lets voters rank the candidates — as many as they like — from their top choice to their least favorite option. In our latest report, the Center for State Policy Analysis examines the following issues related to ranked-choice voting:

  • Our current voting system has some genuine deficiencies, which ranked choice can address. For instance, in large fields, the winning candidate sometimes ends up with a surprisingly small share of the votes. (In one 2020 Massachusetts congressional primary, the winner had just 22.4 percent of the vote.) This doesn’t happen under ranked choice, where counting continues until someone gathers majority support.
  • Also, the current system sometimes discourages voters from supporting their real favorites. If your preferred candidate has low polling numbers, you may feel pressure to back another candidate with a better chance of prevailing. But under ranked choice you can vote your true preference, confident that if your first choice proves unpopular, your vote will get transferred to a more viable candidate in your rankings.
  • There may be a constitutional problem with this ballot question that could preclude using ranked choice in general elections for state officers (though primaries and federal elections would be unaffected). The Massachusetts constitution says that in these races “the person having the highest number of votes shall be deemed and declared to be elected.” This may conflict with ranked choice, where the person with the most initial votes doesn’t necessarily win. And this uncertainty could lead to disruptive legal challenges, putting future elections in the hands of the courts.
  • The transition to ranked choice may also be rocky. 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, as the counting process is more involved for ranked-choice elections. In some cases, ballots from across the state will have to be transported to a central location to be tabulated. And while electronic records could speed this process, the secretary of state’s office notes that not all precincts have the capacity to generate electronic records, not to mention concerns about the secure transmission of electronic data.
  • Many claims about the costs and benefits of ranked choice are based on limited evidence. This includes arguments about turnout, new types of candidates, campaign spending, and the impact on minority groups.