Really? You’re saying Ranked Choice Voting is too hard for adults in Massachusetts?

My former Quantitative Reasoning (QR) students know that Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is superior to First Past the Post (FPTP), the system we use in Massachusetts for most elections.

So why did Massachusetts adults vote it down by a convincing margin (ten points)? There are several possible reasons:

  1. They don’t like change.
  2. They don’t like majority rule.
  3. They don’t like non-establishment candidates.
  4. They don’t understand RCV.
  5. They fear that other voters don’t understand RCV.

Matt Stout, in an article in the Boston Globe four days ago, gives an analysis, including this excerpt:

Evan Falchuk, the Yes on 2 committee chairman, said the pandemic, and the human element it sucked from campaigning, undercut many of its plans, including for house parties and creative ways to illustrate how the system works.

“We did them with desserts. I did one with bourbon. But we couldn’t do any of that stuff [with the pandemic],” Falchuk said. “When you’re talking about something that’s a reform, it’s a concept, it’s an idea . . . it takes that kind of relationship-building to share that vision.”

Falchuk is correct in using “creative ways” to illustrate what’s going on. In our QR class, for example, we held elections for Supreme Musical Artists of the Past Fifty Years, figuring that it would be more meaningful to teens than voting for actual City Council candidates. (The context in the course was, in part, voting methods in multi-candidate elections, including the city councils in Boston and Cambridge, where almost all of the students lived, but that would be pretty abstract. For inquiring minds who want to know, Boston uses a variation of the Two-Round Runoff (2RR) method, whereas Cambridge uses a complex variant of RCV. Note, by the way, that Cambridge’s complex system is needed for its multi-winner elections; the Massachusetts ballot question was only for single-winner elections.)

The state uses FPTP in elections for governor, state legislature, Congress, etc. The result, as I’m sure you know, is that a candidate supported by only 22% of the voters — like Jake Auchincloss in the recent election for U.S. Representative in the Fourth District — can win a multi-candidate election over the collective total of all the liberal candidates. That isn’t democracy. That isn’t majority rule. At least most southern states use 2RR, which assures a majority in the second round (like the Boston City Council elections).

Another good Congressional example is the 2018 election for U.S. Representative in Maine’s second district, in which a Republican came in first despite being supported by only a minority. As Maine uses ranked choice voting, the low-scoring Independent was knocked out from the second count, and most of his votes went to the Democrat, who then won with a majority of the votes.

In my QR course, the Big Question for the Models of Voting unit (one fourth of the two-summer course) was “What do we do when nobody gets a majority?” There are many answers, even though Nobel Prize winner Kenneth Arrow has proved mathematically that there is no perfect system, no system that achieves all the criteria that we would like a voting method to have. But 2RR and RCV are two of the best solutions — not perfect, but best. The only objections to RCV are weak and unconvincing, basically saying that it’s too complicated and that people who don’t understand it will just vote for one person and lose out on the second count. But so what? Those people would only vote for one person under FPTP anyway.

Check out these two videos for great (though allegorical) explanations:

Note that both videos refer to Ranked Choice Voting as “Alternative Vote” since they’re British and don’t speak American very well. Note also that the second video is about an actual referendum on the subject from the UK nine years ago; RCV lost.


Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning