(SHNS) – Adopting ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts could address deficiencies in the current electoral system, but could also yield a constitutional challenge and a “rocky” transition period, according to a new analysis by a Tufts University think tank.
With voters poised to decide on their November ballots if Massachusetts should move to ranked-choice elections, the Center for State Policy and Analysis at Tufts’ Tisch College published a guide to potential benefits and drawbacks of the initiative. The paper notes that because ranked-choice voting systems are rare, many public claims about costs and benefits are based on limited evidence.
Among the unknowns, the paper’s authors said, are effects on turnout and trust in the voting process, whether new candidates would be encouraged to run, and effects on campaign spending or fundraising. The paper does not take a position on the ranked-choice voting ballot question.
“A yes vote on Question 2 would trigger a dramatic shift in the way elections work in Massachusetts,” it says. “Ballots would look different, voters would have different responsibilities, and the vote-counting process would require new rules and logistics.”
If the question passes, elections for Congressional and state-level offices would be decided based on a ranked-choice method.
Under such a system, voters would rank the candidates for an office, rather than picking just one as they do in elections now. If one candidate gets a majority of votes, that candidate is the winner. If no one gets a majority, the candidate receiving the fewest votes is eliminated, and their votes are reassigned to each voter’s second choice. The process repeats until someone claims a majority.
Potential benefits, according to the Center for State Policy and Analysis, include making it easier for voters “to express their full range of feelings,” by easing strategic worries — for example, a voter might be reluctant under today’s rules to make their sole pick in a three-way race for a candidate with the slimmest chance at winning, especially if it might make it easier for their least-favored candidate to prevail.
Noting the recent Fourth Congressional District primary, in which Jake Auchincloss defeated six other Democrats by attracting just over 22 percent of the vote, the report said that the current electoral system means that sometimes the victor claims “a surprisingly small share of the votes.”
“Rankings also provide a lot more information about the true preferences of voters, compared to picking just a top choice,” the analysis said. “By taking advantage of this additional information, the multi-round counting process ensures that winners have at least some support across a large swath of ballots. By contrast, ranked-choice rules work against candidates with a narrow but passionate base of voters.”
It’s also possible that ranked-choice voting could boost civility among candidates, who would not want to alienate an opponent’s supporters, the center said.
One of the system’s risks, the researchers wrote, lies in the Massachusetts Constitution, which says that in general elections for state offices, “the person having the highest number of votes shall be deemed and declared to be elected.”
They said it’s possible that a court could find that language “compatible with ranked choice,” and that a challenge on constitutional grounds would be a “one-time risk” as a court ruling would set terms for future elections.
“But we might not get a final ruling until after we hold a ranked-choice election,” the report said. “And that could create a situation where the results of a contentious race for governor or attorney general are held up in the courts, sowing election-season turmoil and potentially affecting voters’ confidence in the new system.”
A transition could also potentially bring about other legal challenges — though cases in Maine “established precedents for the legitimacy of ranked-choice voting in many circumstances — along with an increase in uncertainty and “error-laden ballots” as voters adjust to the new method, logistical hurdles associated with multiple rounds of counting, and delayed results, according to the center.
The report identifies “tweaks” and other steps that lawmakers could consider if Question 2 passes, such as seeking an advisory opinion from the Supreme Judicial Court on the constitutionality of using ranked choice in general elections for state officials, and confirming election results with a risk-limiting audit to help build voter trust.
The analysis was written by Center for State Policy Analysis Executive Director Evan Horowitz, with lead researcher Jesse Clark, a doctoral candidate in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and reviewers Eitan Hersh of Tufts, Erin O’Brien of UMass Boston, and Adam Zelizer of the University of Chicago.