By Samuel VanSant Stoddard: More voice, but whose voice?

  • A summary of Ballot Question 2, known as a “ranked-choice voting” law, in the Nov. 3, 2020, Massachusetts election is displayed in a handbook provided to voters by the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Sept. 23, in Marlborough, Mass. AP Photo/Bill Sikes

Published: 10/28/2020 3:26:59 PM

In 2018, our neighbors to the north in Maine made their state the first to adopt ranked-choice voting. The change was designed to prevent candidates who lack majority support from gaining office in a divided electoral field. Mainers knew this scenario well, thanks to the state’s longstanding penchant for partisan independence.

In 2010, Republican Paul LePage was elected governor with less than 38% of the vote, while the Democratic nominee and a left-leaning independent combined for more than 56%. Then in 2014, it happened again. LePage was reelected by another minority, 48% of Maine voters, with the majority again split between the Democrat and independent. Petty, divisive and brash, LePage consistently ranked as one of the most unpopular governors in the nation.

The shift to a ranked-choice system of voting solved Maine’s LePage problem, creating a de facto alliance between Democrats and left-leaning independents. But Massachusetts is not Maine.

We have no tradition of support for independent candidates. Instead, we have major party dominance. Here, ranked-choice voting is likely to boost weak Democratic candidates, unresponsive to the party’s progressive base.

Even if an outsider does win a contingent of progressive or working-class voters, under a ranked-choice system, the Democrat can hope to be pushed over the top thanks to second-choice support. This would effectively nullify the protests of disaffected Democrats, making their voices easy to ignore. Insulating the already-dominant Democratic Party from the electoral consequences of putting up uninspiring candidates is no way to steer the party or the state toward a progressive agenda.

Furthermore, as the national party appears increasingly focused on winning the favor of former Republicans, ranked-choice voting may discourage the voices of the Democrats’ working-class base.

Let’s be honest: Voting in Massachusetts can already be an intimidating process. First there is the research on candidates and issues, where trustworthy advice can be hard to cull from the noise. Then there is the ballot itself: the fine type, the archaic wording, the complex questions. Even as someone who studies politics for a living, I proceed with caution and double-check my work.

Ranked-choice voting would further complicate the appearance of the ballot and process of completing it. Supporters of ranked-choice will point out that voters are not required to select multiple candidates. But any voter who fails to order all of the candidates is less likely to affect the ultimate outcome — their voices count less.

It is one thing to find a single candidate to support. Learning about and ranking an entire slate of candidates is a far more arduous task.

When I teach about voter suppression in the Jim Crow South, my students and I examine the State of Louisiana Literacy Test from 1964, the last year states employed these hurdles to the franchise.

The test is, above all, needlessly confusing. Enforcement of the test was discriminatory, and many undesired voters failed. But even more simply stayed home, not interested in subjecting themselves to a ridiculing of their intellects.

Today, educational attainment and income are among the best predictors of who doesn’t vote. Many citizens, who rightly have other tasks and stressors to occupy their attention, don’t see the benefit in participating. After all, the policies don’t meet their needs. The candidates don’t come to their neighborhoods. They are not “likely voters,” and the vicious cycle of underrepresentation continues.   

Certainly, ranked-choice voting is not designed to discriminate. But we can encourage equal participation by making voting easier, not harder.  

If voters leave their polling places unsure of whether they voted correctly, they may not come back. If they leave feeling guilty they did not know more about their options, they may not come back. If voting is more a source of anxiety than a path to relief, they may not come back.  

The splitting of liberal support may have been Maine’s problem, but it isn’t ours. Ranked-choice voting amplifies privileged voices, while quieting cries for change. And it could stand as yet another deterrent to the equal representation of those who already need the most and get the least from our government. Majority support is a worthy goal, but for Massachusetts, ranked-choice voting threatens to create more problems than it solves.  

Samuel VanSant Stoddard is visiting assistant professor of political science at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. He lives in Leeds.  

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