Ranked Choice Voting: Why we lost in 2020

If you haven't heard, the 2020 ballot initiative to use ranked choice voting (RCV) in Massachusetts has failed. The count isn't finalized yet, but roughly 45% voted for the measure, while 55% voted against it. There was a similar ballot initiative in Alaska for ranked choice voting that also failed, but I know much less about it.

I've spent the last few months volunteering to get ranked choice voting passed in MA, so this is obviously very disappointing for me. While I've known for a while that this was a possible outcome, I genuinely believed that victory was possible. And I think I was right – it was still pretty close.

While I'm disappointed by the result, I feel ok. I feel like I personally did everything I could to help get it passed, and I don't think anything else I could have done would have made a meaningful difference. Given how strongly I believe in ranked choice voting, I know that had I not volunteered and donated towards the initiative, I'd be kicking myself now wondering if I could have made a difference. At least now I don't have to wonder and I have no regrets.

When I realized that the initiative had failed, my first question was "How did this fail?" Massachusetts is a very progressive state and I thought that if RCV could pass anywhere, it would be here. Plus, a similar measure passed in Maine in 2016, so I knew a victory was possible. Early voter polls also showed a nearly 10-point lead of Yes-voters over No-voters. What went wrong?

Regarding the early poll results, I don't actually think they were wrong. They were just misleading. The two most recent polls showed 45% and 48% of voters saying they would vote Yes, which is approximately how many people did vote Yes. What seems to have happened is that nearly 100% of people who said they were undecided in the poll translated into No voters in the actual election.

My sense is that many people went into this election mostly to vote on the presidential election and didn't put any thought into the ballot questions until they were reading their ballot on election day. This was my fear from the beginning, because I fully admit that ranked choice voting sounds like a strange idea when you first hear about it and the benefits are not immediately obvious. The ballots also get printed a long time before the election and don't show who has endorsed the measure. Ranked Choice Voting was endorsed by an amazing list of groups and people: Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, Joe Kennedy, Former Republican governor of MA Bill Weld, The Boston Globe – even Jennifer Lawrence officially endorsed it. But none of that was shown on the ballot, unfortunately.

The only prominent politician to oppose it was current MA Governor Charlie Baker. His criticism boiled down to: RCV would make elections more complicated and our current election system is fine the way it is.

So although this loss could have been predicted by the results of early polls, it still doesn't explain why more voters weren't in favor of it. After all, a similar measure passed in Maine in 2016 with 52% support.

This thinking led me to reframe my initial question of "How did RCV fail in MA (and AK)?" to "How did RCV pass in Maine? What makes Maine special?" I'm only speculating, but I think I have a pretty good guess. The reason RCV was popular in Maine was because their 2016 ballot question came on the heels of two frustrating gubernatorial races that resulted in an unpopular governor. In 2010, Paul LePage was elected governor with only 38.1% of the vote due to a split election where he ran against four other candidates. And in 2014, he won re-election with only 48.2% of the vote. While in office his approval rating was only 41%, which was one of the lowest of any governor in the country (Wikipedia).

Having such an unpopular governor win two consecutive elections without majority support provided a simple narrative for ranked choice voting: if Maine had RCV, then they wouldn't have Paul LePage. So it's likely that RCV passing in Maine was mostly a referendum on Paul LePage himself, rather than a reflection of genuine support for RCV. I imagine the campaign messaging for RCV in Maine was basically "Do you hate Paul LePage? Do you wish literally anyone else was our governor? Then vote Yes on Question 5!" Maybe it's not a coincidence that LePage's disapproval rating was 53% and RCV passed with 52% of the vote.

Maine had a straightforward story for why they needed ranked choice voting. But what was the story in Massachusetts?

I think this is the real reason why RCV didn't pass in Massachusetts – the argument for RCV was intellectual rather than a direct response to real experiences. One counterargument I heard from several voters regarding RCV is that most elections only have two candidates anyway, so RCV wouldn't actually be any different than plurality voting. My response to that was that the reason there are usually only two candidates in elections is because we use plurality voting. A third candidate running would only spoil the election, therefore they usually don't run. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it requires you to imagine all of the great candidates who aren't running but we could be electing and is not grounded in people's real experiences. I still think I'm right on this, but counting on people's ability to imagine better candidates is risky.

I've also thought a lot about Governor Baker's assertion that we don't need RCV in MA. A week ago, I scoffed at that statement (of course, things could be better), but I now realize that he's kind of right. If you're happy with the politicians that are currently being elected, then there's no incentive to change the way we elect them. If you can't imagine anyone you'd rather see in power, then changing the voting system could only make things worse. And boy are people happy with the politicians in MA: Charlie Baker's approval rating sits at 80% and he consistently had the highest approval rating of any governor in the US for nearly three years! (Wikipedia)

When you compare the favorability of Paul LePage in Maine with Charlie Baker, it makes total sense why more voters weren't itching for RCV in Massachusetts. Why adopt a new voting system when our current system is already giving us wonderful politicians like Baker?

I'm still very much in favor of ranked choice voting, but I'm skeptical that it can pass in a state unless there's deep dissatisfaction with their current politicians like there was in Maine. Perhaps we'll just have to wait for voters to realize the flaws with plurality voting before we can get traction for ranked choice voting. I just hope we can afford to wait.


Footnotes

  1. Of course, if a politician has more than 50% of the vote, they would still win the election even under RCV. So, in all likelihood, even with RCV Baker's governorship would be safe. So it's not like switching to RCV would get rid of the politicians people like. That being said, there's also no advantage to using RCV is candidates are consistently winning with more than 50% of the vote, so why bother changing the system?

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