Acton Senator’s Ranked-Choice Voting Bill Sees Sizable Support in Hearing

Statue of General Joseph Hooker outside the Massachusetts Statehouse. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

J.D. Capelouto
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON — Activists donning blue “Voter Choice Massachusetts” shirts packed a Statehouse hearing room Thursday and begged lawmakers to move forward on an Acton senator’s bill to make “ranked choice voting” an option on ballots statewide.

Speakers at a hearing before the Joint Committee on Election Laws stressed their view that ranked choice voting — which would give voters an option to rank several candidates instead of just one in an election — is fundamental to increased involvement and diversity in politics.

“It’s critical to the future health of our democracy that we encourage higher voter turnout and that our diversity is reflected in our elected institutions,” said Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, who filed the bill that would give any Massachusetts city or town the ability to use ranked choice in an election.

Eldridge did not testify because the Senate was in session.

“It’s something that’s very concrete, it’s very practical and it’s something that we can accomplish and we know can succeed,” said Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat who filed the House version of the bill.

Cambridge is the only city in Massachusetts that employs ranked choice, a system it enacted around 1940. Connolly said the system has “generally received very high reviews.”

Locally, Lowell established ranked choice voting in the 1940s, but backlash led to a return to the traditional plurality system, according to Voter Choice Massachusetts, the lead activist group supporting the bill.

 “Democracy is in decay and we’re experiencing profound upheaval and divisiveness,” said Voter Choice’s Executive Director Adam Friedman. “Voters deserve better.”

Friedman later added that the cost to implement ranked choice voting would be “minimal, negligible.”

Proponents say ranked choice voting is a more inclusive and fair system because it gets rid of the so-called “spoiler effect,” in which a third-party candidate can virtually take votes away from a similar candidate who would otherwise have a plurality.

“It gives a bigger voice to more independent thoughts and feelings,” Joyce Isen, a member of the steering committee of activist group Our Revolution Concord Area, said in an interview. “You do get to vote your heart. You vote what you really want, what you really believe in.”

In August the Concord group held an educational session with Voter Choice about ranked choice voting. Isen said they “feel very strongly positive about the issue.”

Connolly said ranked choice would lead to more positive campaigning.

“When you encounter someone who may not be supporting you with their No. 1 choice, you still have an incentive to engage with people in a positive way” so they still rank you high, he said.

Connolly also suggested the bill could save money, since it would essentially get rid of the need for preliminary elections.

“Instead of having to go through primaries and preliminary elections, you can do a single election,” he said. “In these tight fiscal times, that can be a benefit to local towns.”

Last year, Maine became the first state to implement ranked choice voting, after residents approved it through a ballot question. In May, however, Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court issued an advisory opinion that the system is unconstitutional and recommended a return to the plurality system. The Maine Legislature may vote on the issue in a special session later this month.

Residents came close to reinstituting ranked choice in 2009 when it was offered as a ballot question but failed, according to Eda Matchak, Lowell’s elections director. Matchak declined to comment further.

Speakers reminded the committee that if Eldridge’s bill is passed, it would still be up to municipalities to decide whether to institute the system.

“Each community will be allowed to determine which option they feel best works for their residents,” Rep. Stephan Hay, D-Fitchburg, testified.

Voter Choice Massachusetts drew so many supporters to the hearing that the committee asked each of them to state their name and where they are from. The approximately 30 proponents came from cities and towns all over the state.

Connolly said he is “hopeful” that the bill will receive a favorable report and be signed into law this session.

“The momentum for this bill is simply incredible,” he said.

Ranked choice voting was added to the official platform of the Massachusetts Democratic Party in June, though Eldridge said making sure that more people participate in elections “is a non-partisan issue.”

“I look forward to working with my colleagues to pass this bill,” he said.

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