SEEKONK, Mass. (WPRI) — The most interesting race on next week’s ballot in Massachusetts doesn’t feature any candidates at all.
Question 2 asks Bay State voters whether they want to switch their electoral system to ranked-choice voting, which is already being used in Maine. A UMass Amherst/WCVB poll this week showed voters closely divided on the ballot question, with 48% in favor and 43% opposed, plus 9% undecided.
If Question 2 passes, starting in 2022 Massachusetts voters will use their ballots to rank their favorites in multi-candidate races. If a candidate is the first choice of at least 50% of voters, he or she wins; if not, the candidate with the least support is eliminated from contention, and the votes of those who had originally backed that candidate are redistributed to their second choices.
The process continues until one candidate clears 50% of the vote and is declared the winner.
Democrat Jesse Mermell has become a poster child for the Yes on 2 campaign since she narrowly lost last month’s 4th Congressional District primary to Jake Auchincloss, who came out on top with just 23% of the vote. Auchincloss was one of a number of candidates who’ve won congressional primaries in recent years with the support of a relatively small slice of the electorate.
Asked whether she thinks she would have won the 4th District primary under ranked-choice voting, Mermell told 12 News: “There’s no way to know. And it’s not the point.” She noted that Auchincloss himself also supports Question 2.
“It takes away a problem that frankly so many of us in the 4th saw all the time — voters feeling like they had to play political pundit, choose between the lesser of evils, as opposed to just voting for the candidate who inspires you,” she said.
In supporting ranked-choice voting, Mermell is in line with top elected leaders in her party who are all backing the ballot question, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Attorney General Maura Healey. But the state’s most popular politician — Republican Gov. Charlie Baker — has announced he is voting against the change.
Eitan Hersh, a Providence native who teaches political science at Tufts University, is among those who have reservations about ranked-choice voting. He argues relatively little is known about how the new system would affect turnout or campaign finance, forcing voters to take a leap of faith.
“The thing we’re most confident about, that I’m most confident about, is that it makes voting a little bit harder,” Hersh said.
The crowded 4th District primary is, to Hersh, an example of how the system could disadvantage voters who pay less attention to politics.
“Look, I have a Ph.D. in political science. I was in the 4th District. I could tell you right now my ranking for all those candidates,” he said. “But most voters are not in that position. And so it’s easy for me to rank nine people — maybe I’d even have fun doing it — but that just gives me more voting power compared to someone who doesn’t have the time or interest in doing that.”
Mermell counters that such a view doesn’t give voters enough credit.
“Listen,” she said, “if you can rank your favorite Halloween candy, ice cream flavors, sports teams, you have what it takes to understand participating in ranked-choice voting.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.