Preferential voting would increase turnout
Boston has reason to celebrate the outcome of the recent preliminary election for mayor. The race has brought out a large and diverse field of candidates, and we are now heading into a historic November general election between two accomplished female candidates, both of whom identify as women of color. The election is a milestone in Boston’s history.
Yet even as we celebrate this milestone, we must not turn a blind eye to the obvious shortcomings of the city’s current electoral system, revealed this year and years past. For the second open-seat mayoral race in less than a decade, Boston failed to nominate a black candidate in the general election. As others have noted, this was in part due to lower turnout in the city’s more diverse neighborhoods and in part to the division of votes among black candidates.
Fortunately, these are two problems that can be avoided with a simple solution. Boston can create a more fair and inclusive municipal election by eliminating the low voter turnout in September and adopting choice voting for its November general election instead. Ranked choice voting gives voters the power to rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference: first choice, second choice, etc. It’s kind of like a more efficient version of the current system. Where the current system asks voters for the first choice in September, and if that candidate is eliminated, for their backup choice in November, ranked choice voting allows voters to mark both choices on a single ballot, by only one trip to the polls.
Ranked choice voting offers several key improvements over the current system.
First, the city can save a lot of money by dropping the preliminaries.
Second, preliminary elections have a very low turnout, and statistically, the lower the turnout in an election, the richer and more white the electorate becomes. In last month’s preliminaries, there was a 10-point gap between the most diverse and least diverse constituencies. Ranked choice voting would also give voters more reasons to run in November, as more votes and choices would be on the general election ballot. It would include and engage more voters in the process with a single, higher turnout election.
Third, concerns about the division of votes disappear when voters can rank their backup choices. Warnings that black voters should have ignored their true preferences and lined up behind a single candidate in the preliminaries, as happened in both the 2013 mayoral race and this year, are paternalistic and undemocratic. With ranked choice voting, votes that would otherwise be split naturally merge behind a single candidate, without the need to intimidate voters into casting a vote in bad faith or forcing potential candidates to ” spoiler ‘to withdraw.
Finally, ranked choice voting encourages candidates to run more positive campaigns. We have all seen the negative attacks between the Janey and Campbell camps. Unfortunately, this strategy makes sense in the current system: when two candidates risk dividing the votes, the best tactic is often to shoot each other down. Under the ranked choice, these campaigns would have been more encouraged to positively touch their respective bases, to gain more second choice places. While the ranked-choice ballot issue failed statewide last year, voters in Boston voted in favor, as did voters in more than 80 other Commonwealth communities. Two of those Massachusetts cities will hold elective vote elections in November, and at least three other cities and towns are also actively seeking adoption for their local elections.
Nationally, the use of ranked choice voting continues to accelerate, with more than 50 jurisdictions across the country holding a ranked choice election this year or next. As Boston continues to strive for greater fairness and inclusion, the preliminary electoral system should not avoid close scrutiny. Replacing the preliminaries with a ranked choice vote in the general election would include more voters in the final decision, give voters more reason to participate in November, eliminate the problem of “split votes”, encourage a positive campaign – and would save us all a few. dollars too. We call on those elected to our city council and the mayor’s office next month to commit to making this important improvement in our democracy in Boston.
Cheryl Clyburn Crawford is Executive Director of MassVOTE, Senior Vice President of the Boston Branch of the NAACP, and a member of the Board of Directors of Voter Choice Massachusetts. Reverend Vernon K. Walker is a member of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee and a member of the Rank the Vote advisory board.