The ranked-choice election system that Massachusetts voters will decide whether to embrace is, depending on which side of the issue you ask, either a simple fix to a stifling status quo or a confusing thicket of steps that elevates fringe voices.
As opponents of the Nov. 3 ballot question prepare to launch their campaign, one of the proposal's lead backers and an attorney who fought a similar effort in Maine made their pitches at a virtual forum Thursday.
On the line is a massive overhaul of the way elections are decided, one that supporters say is particularly relevant in the wake of two congressional primary elections where the winner in a crowded Democratic field did not surpass even one-fourth of votes cast.
"We're tired of zero-sum politics," said Evan Falchuk, board chair of the Yes on 2 campaign. "We're tired of a lack of choices, we're tired of spoilers and split votes and voting in fear. We're tired of politicians ignoring us if we're not part of their base. We want consensus. We want our voices to be heard. We want new choices, new ideas and new voices, and we're working hard to make these things into a reality."
His counterpart, attorney Lee Goodman, argued that ranked-choice voting might have some advantages but has clear drawbacks, particularly because voters might struggle to comprehend the process of listing preferences rather than casting a single vote per race. Those problems could be avoided, he suggested, with a runoff system in which the top two vote-getters face off in another round for victory.
"The effect of that contortion, of collapsing a runoff election onto one ballot on one Election Day, actually introduces many downsides and costs to voters and burdens on voters that the voters of Massachusetts should be aware of," Goodman said Thursday.
Over the course of more than an hour, Falchuk and Goodman outlined their positions in response to questions from GBH News Worcester bureau reporter Carrie Saldo, ranging from the constitutionality of the proposal to how local elections offices would adjust.
If approved Nov. 3, Massachusetts would implement ranked-choice voting starting in 2022 for almost all federal and state races, excluding U.S. president, that require a single winner.
Voters would list candidates in the order of their preference, though they can leave second-choice and lower spots blank if they wish only to support a single person. Any candidate who receives more than 50 percent of first-place votes automatically wins, but if no one clears that threshold, whichever candidate received the fewest first-place votes is eliminated from contention.
Those who selected the candidate eliminated would have their ballots redirected to whomever they selected as their second choice. That process would continue in rounds until one candidate has a majority of votes.
"Ranked-choice voting is simple, it's fair, it's easy," Falchuk said. "If you can rank your favorite doughnuts at Dunkin' Donuts, as so many of us do every day, you can rank your favorite candidates."
Cambridge has used a similar system for its municipal elections for decades, and the system survived a 1941 legal challenge, Falchuk said. But, Massachusetts would become only the second state after Maine to implement ranked-choice voting at such a large scale if voters opted to do so.
Falchuk was the United Independent candidate for governor in 2014, when he and running mate Angus Jennings won 3.3 percent of all votes cast. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito topped Democratic nominees Martha Coakley and Steve Kerrigan in that election by a margin of 1.9 percentage points.
Goodman represented former Republican Congressman Bruce Poliquin of Maine, who lost reelection in 2018 to Democrat Jared Golden in the state's first ranked-choice election, in an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the system. Poliquin earned more first-place votes but did not reach a majority threshold, and Golden was declared the winner once second choices were counted.
Ranked-choice supporters argue that giving voters more choices better engages them in the process and ensures that whoever wins has a broader base of support, particularly in crowded elections.
Falchuk pointed to this year's Democratic primary for the 4th Congressional District, where Jake Auchincloss narrowly won a nine-way race with about 22.4 percent of the vote.
"Seventy-eight percent of voters voted for someone else other than the person who won," Falchuk said. "Over 40 percent of races in Massachusetts with three or more candidates have this exact thing happening. Democracy is supposed to mean majority rules. Twenty-two percent doesn't even come close."
Goodman contended the system does not produce as much majoritarian support as the Yes on 2 campaign suggests.
If voters back an unsuccessful candidate and do not rank the others, their ballots are effectively removed from the pool, so, winners emerge based on a smaller denominator of total votes cast. In San Francisco, he said, local officeholders have won elections with a majority of reapportioned votes that only add up to about 45 percent of the total ballots cast.
"Ballots are dropping out of the electorate for those people that did not rank enough candidates going down the line," Goodman said. "As a result of that, when we claim we have the final two candidates and a majority winner, we have a plurality winner of the total electorate that turned out to vote on Election Day. What we have done is, we've preferred one plurality — that is the initial vote count — versus the final vote count."
Falchuk argued that the different voting model would encourage candidates to reach more voters. Under the current model, he said, a candidate almost never would knock on the door of a voter who has an opponent's sign on their property, but with ranked-choice, office-seekers can pitch themselves as a viable second or third option.
In response, Goodman said that dynamic also could push candidates away from the center and toward the fringes of the race as they compete for lower-preference support.
"You can see the pro-Second Amendment gun rights independent candidate in the race trying to pull one candidate in that direction," he said. "You can see the pro-marijuana candidate trying to pull votes in that direction. Evan said this was a benefit of the system. It may be, but you need to decide in Massachusetts if that's what you'd like to elevate."
Falchuk and Goodman offered opposing takes on how ranked-choice voting affects "spoilers," with the former suggesting that it prevents a third-party candidate from tipping a race and the latter saying the competition for secondary votes could have the same outcome.
Thursday's debate was one of the first public showings for opponents of ranked-choice voting. A formal campaign that will argue for no on Question 2 filed paperwork with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance at the end of August, but organizers say they are launching the effort.
Among their backers is Anthony Amore, Republican nominee for secretary of state in 2018 who told the News Service he is volunteering with the opposition campaign.
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced her support for the ranked-choice voting ballot question, writing in a Boston Globe op-ed that the system "can make our elections more positive and require successful candidates to build broad coalitions."