Center for State Policy Analysis releases report on ranked-choice voting ahead of Mass. ballot question

Barnum Hall, which houses Tisch College, is pictured on Oct. 1, 2020. Nicole Garay / The Tufts Daily

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life’s Center for State Policy Analysis (cSPA) recently released a report outlining the benefits and drawbacks of ranked-choice voting, the topic of a question that will appear on Massachusetts’ November ballot. If adopted, Massachusetts voters will have the option of ranking candidates in order of preference instead of casting a single vote for one candidate. 

The cSPA, which was created in February, focuses on legislative issues and ballot initiatives in Massachusetts. 

We started off with that goal of providing nonpartisan evidence-based research on all [Massachusetts] legislative issues,” Evan Horowitz, executive director of cSPA, said.

If the measure is approved, however, ranked-choice voting will not be applied to presidential elections, according to the report. 

Under ranked-choice voting, voters are able to rank as many candidates as they wish to support, although they are not required to do so. This system will also require constituents to be more knowledgeable about candidates in order to vote responsibly. 

It does require a little more from voters than the current system,” Horowitz said. “It’s especially hard for low information voters.”

Ranked-choice voting will also ask more from the state’s election system. There may be instances where more than one round of counting will be necessary before a winner is declared, according to the report. 

Jesse Clarke, a political science doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and lead researcher of the report, said cSPA’s goal was to provide specific and accurate information regarding ranked-choice voting.

There’s been a lot of information flooding the zone on ranked-choice voting, and we sought to actually put down what is true and what is not true,” Clarke said.

Horowitz echoed Clarke’s sentiments. 

“The whole point is just to help voters understand the trade-offs involved, what might happen if the ballot initiative passes,” Horowitz said. 

One significant advantage of ranked-choice voting is that it provides greater assurance that the winner of an election has received a majority of the votes.

“Seeing how when there [are] so many candidates in the field, how the person who wins can win by such a small amount, with such a relatively small fraction [of] support … I think ranked-choice voting would really make it so the candidate who wins actually has to get a majority support in the election,” Amanda Westlake, a sophomore, said. 

However, the report indicated that ranked-choice voting may weaken voters’ trust, as they will not know which candidate got their vote, after having cast their ballot. 

Both Clarke and Horowitz alluded to various legal issues Maine has faced in adopting ranked-choice voting.

“Maine has switched over to ranked-choice and they’ve seen a litany of legal fights around it,” Horowitz said. 

According to a survey cited in the report, Maine saw a reduction in constituents’ level of confidence after voting in a 2018 congressional election, where votes were reallocated several times to reach the final result. 

A shift to ranked-choice voting will also necessitate a more intricate ballot format that may be confusing to some voters and could lead to mistakes when filling out ballots.

“If you are illiterate, or you aren’t a strong reader, it is difficult to fill out ballots anyways. [It changes] from a single column to a 20 by 20 grid, and it gets infinitely more complex,” Clarke said. “If you are somebody who’s been historically disenfranchised, English [is] not your first language, it may be difficult.”

Clarke emphasized that ranked-choice voting, like all systems, has positive and negative features, and that it will not completely change Massachusetts politics. 

“[Ranked-choice voting] is the same way of voting. And it’s going to give us the same system, it’s just slightly more complicated,” Clarke said. “There are good parts, there are bad parts. There are ugly parts, but it’s really not going to change the system.”

Researchers are working to determine how the possible adoption of ranked-choice voting in the state will affect voter turnout and campaign finances.