Bostonians already gave the green light to ranked-choice voting in 2020, voting in favor of an ultimately doomed statewide ballot initiative that would have introduced the practice. The city might yet get another bite at the ranked-choice apple.
A coalition will launch a new campaign this August – an education and advocacy effort pushing for the next Boston City Council class and the mayor to pass a home rule petition in 2024 that would change Boston’s existing election structure to a ranked-choice process. If the State House then signs off on it, of course.
“Too often we accept the fact that our elections are won with a very small number of votes, and that person gets to fulfill the election season with 20 percent of the vote,” said Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE, on the Codcast. “That’s ridiculous.” The current system means “people tune out,” said Crawford, who is co-chairing the Ranked Choice Boston campaign along with Boston NAACP president Tanisha Sullivan.
The method involves ranking candidates by voter preference. If someone is the first choice of more than 50 percent of the voters, then it wraps up on the spot. That candidate wins. But if no one clears that threshold, the candidate who did the worst is eliminated and their voters’ ballots go to their second-choice pick, with continuing rounds of eliminations and reallocation until there is a candidate who has the majority of votes.
Particularly in blue-state Massachusetts, the partisan primary system for state and federal offices means a crowded field of Democrats jostling for just enough votes to walk to victory in an unchallenged or barely competitive general election. But Boston municipal elections are nonpartisan, with the top two finishers in preliminary elections advancing to face-off in the final. That has led in recent years to the most diverse, progressive suite of elected officials in the city’s history.
So what needs fixing?
Crawford doesn’t describe a specific problem with Boston. Rather, the 62 percent of Boston voters who approved of ranked-choice voting indicates “a lot of great interest in rank-choice voting and we wanted it here in Boston,” she said. “I think ranked-choice voting is absolutely a way to break down additional barriers for people running for office, and those that want to run for office.”
Local advocates point to busy fields like the Boston mayoral race to replace Marty Walsh, where no Black candidate advanced to the general election despite Andrea Campbell and Kim Janey both receiving about 20 percent of the vote only to be boxed out for the final by ultimate victor Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George. No one hit 50 percent in the preliminary, which would have led to a round two if the city used ranked-choice voting. If the Black voters split between Campbell and Janey, as ranked choice advocates hypothesize was the case, one of them may well have had a majority of votes in the second round.
“Oftentimes, when you want to have somebody in a seat to represent a particular community, let’s just say in the Black community, you might say to another person, ‘No, you shouldn’t run because we are trying to get somebody elected,’” Crawford said. “This eliminates that whole process. Everybody can run because then voters have a true choice in who represents them, so it keeps the spoiler effect away.”
Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, is familiar enough to voters in Cambridge and Easthampton. Other Bay State municipalities like Arlington have been trying the home rule route over the past year, while a bill that would allow local choice in implementing ranked choice voting gets its tires kicked yet again up on Beacon Hill.
Proponents say it ushers in a bigger and more diverse pool of candidates, encouraged to run without fear of splitting the vote and less incentivized to throw elbows during campaigns. Skeptics say it’s too complicated, discards votes over varying rounds, and can counterintuitively still leave some voters without representation.
Crawford thinks the statewide initiative failed because it occurred during the fraught first year of COVID-19, where face-to-face contact was almost impossible. “So we really didn’t get a chance to interface with folks on a ground level,” she said. “I think that was a major part of it. We didn’t get a chance to really educate people in the way that we do for other pieces of legislation.”
This campaign is starting during Boston’s election season, already marked with controversy involving sitting councilors and offering a few open seats. Crawford said the coalition will be hammering the education part of their effort with forums to get candidates on the record about their position on ranked choice.
“We do have the opportunity to ask all the city councilors that want to be our representatives, ‘where do you stand on this issue?’ so that they can make it clear to the community,” she said. “We want [voters] to make their own choices. And the only way to do that is to make sure that they’re presented with the data and make sure that they have the opportunity to hear from the candidates themselves.”