BOSTON — Backers of ranked-choice voting are taking their fledgling effort to the ballot box to change how Massachusetts elects its officials.
A coalition of progressive activists, good government groups and lawmakers want voters to approve a switch from the current winner-take-all system to a ranked-choice method that asks voters to weigh candidates in order of preference. They filed a proposal to get on the 2020 ballot.
“This isn’t a new idea,” said Mac D’Alessandro, state director of Voter Choice Massachusetts, the group behind the effort. “It’s been used in some places for more than a hundred years.”
He said ranked-choice voting ensures that winning candidates have broad support and gives voters the option of multiple choices in a crowded primary or general election.
“It wouldn’t require anyone to rank any candidates unless they choose to do so,” D’Alessandro said. “People would still be able to vote as they do now — for one candidate.”
Supporters of the measure must clear several hurdles if Attorney General Maura Healey approves the question for the ballot, including gathering signatures of 80,239 registered voters.
D’Alessandro said he believes the question will pass legal muster. Supporters are gearing up for a major signature-gathering drive to get on the ballot next year.
Backers of the change say the current winner-take-all system means the top candidate in a crowded race could squeak out a win with only a small margin of overall support.
It happened in the Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional District last year. In a packed field of 10 candidates, Lori Trahan won with about 22 percent of the vote.
At least 80 state lawmakers have signed on to a pair of bills to approve the switch for federal, state and local elections in Massachusetts but the proposals are languishing in a key legislative committee.
Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, is a co-sponsor of the proposals and one of the most vocal supporters on Beacon Hill of switching to ranked choice.
“The goal is to get us to a place where the voice of the electorate is better reflected in our elections,” he said. “Right now, the way we do elections doesn’t make room for that.”
How would ranked-choice voting work?
Instead of choosing just one candidate, voters would rank all candidates in each race according to their preference, from first to last.
If a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the first-preference votes, that person is declared the winner. If no candidate receives a majority, the one with the least votes is eliminated and the ballots are recounted.
On that count, if a voter’s first choice was the eliminated candidate, the second-choice candidate would receive the vote.
This so-called “instant runoff” is repeated until someone receives more than 50 percent of the vote.
“It helps elect candidates who are more in line with views of the broader electorate, not just the fringe on the right or the left,” Vargas said. “And more people are encouraged to turn out to cast ballots because they feel their vote will count.”
Critics say ranked-choice is confusing. It also leads to sleepy campaigns, they argue, where candidates avoid hot-button topics because they don’t want to alienate potential supporters.
It’s not clear if the move will face a challenge. So far, no legal objections have been filed to keep the question off the ballot, and no groups have formed in opposition.
Secretary of State Bill Galvin, a Democrat who has overseen elections for nearly a quarter-century, recently threw his support behind the proposed changes.
Cambridge has used ranked-choice voting since the 1940s to elect its City Council and School Committee.
While some other U.S. cities, such as San Francisco and Santa Fe, New Mexico, use ranked-choice voting, Maine is the only state to make the switch broadly. Voters there approved the change in a 2016 referendum, but it wasn’t implemented until this year because of multiple legal challenges.
Other states besides Massachusetts are toying with the idea of moving away from winner-take-all elections. In 2017, lawmakers in at least 14 states introduced bills on ranked-choice voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.