Bill Galvin, Secretary of the Commonwealth, is not generally considered the most cutting-edge, avant-garde guy in the Bay State. He only created his first campaign Twitter account last week, well into his sixth—and most competitive—re-election defense.

So it’s notable that one of his first dozen Tweets from that account was an endorsement of a radical change to the elections his office oversees: adoption of “ranked choice voting,” or RCV.

It was actually a retweet of Voter Choice Massachusetts, quoting himself from early this month; when Galvin told that group that he is “very interested in the concept” of RCV. He wanted to see how it goes in Maine’s adoption of the method—first ever in a state-wide primary—and “then I think we want to move forward to implement it in an effective way here in Massachusetts.”

Well, Maine’s primary seems to have gone just fine, notwithstanding a week-long delay as ballots slowly made there way to Augusta from points around the Down East state.
Maine voters also voted—for the second time, in a back-and-forth battle of wills with the state legislature—to continue using RCV for primary and federal elections into the future. (General elections for state office are considered ineligible due to state constitutional language.)

These days, when there’s plenty of frustration and disaffection swirling around, there’s a real seller’s market for ideas about fixing the political system. RCV, for years a favorite topic among college-campus activists, is now gaining some mainstream attention. It is currently used in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a small but growing number of jurisdictions.

Maine might be a little ahead of the national curve, thanks not only to its quirky independent streak but also to its own version of Donald Trump: controversial Republican Governor Paul LePage. LePage has led the state—and sharply divided its residents—for eight years, winning in both 2010 and 2014 with less than 50 percent of the vote.

So, last Tuesday, Maine primary voters were asked to mark first choice, second choice, and so on in elections with more than two candidates. If no candidate reached 50% with first choice votes, low vote-getters were eliminated one by one, with their votes dispersed to the next choice, until one candidate topped that 50 percent mark.

It went off without a hitch. Not that it made much of a difference in the results. There were two races in which no candidate reached a majority through first-place votes. In the 2nd congressional district Democratic primary, Jared Golden came just shy of 50%, and easily moved past that mark in the RCV runoff count. In the closely watched seven-candidate Democratic primary to succeed LePage as Governor, Janet Mills led in first-place votes over Adam Cote; the assigned RCV votes ultimately broke to Mills in almost exactly the same ratio over Cote as the first-place votes had.

So, the use of RCV seems to have had no effect on the nominations of Golden and Mills. That doesn’t necessarily mean it had no effect on the campaign, however.
Proponents, such as Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for Maine’s Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, believe the system discourages negative campaigning, and ensures that the winning candidate has something resembling majority support.

Traditional runoff elections between the top two vote-getters, used especially in many Southern state primaries, accomplish much the same thing. This week, for example, incumbent Republican Martha Roby of Alabama faces a runoff election against former U.S. Representative Bobby Bright, after Roby failed to clear 50 percent in her June 5 primary. Or consider Boston’s non-partisan mayoral and city council elections, which start with a preliminary election to determine the finalists.

But Bailey argues that an extra runoff election requires additional expense, for the government as well as the candidates, and could disenfranchise some voters, such as those in the military.
But mostly, RCV supporters like the idea of freeing voters from what they see as the bane of strategic voting. That happens when you support a candidate with little chance of victory, but feel the need to instead vote for the “least bad” of the leading candidates.

However, RCV might reduce that pressure, only to substitute other strategic voting in its place.

Two candidates in that Maine Democratic gubernatorial primary, Betsy Sweet and Mark Eves, formed an alliance to promote second-place votes for one another. They finished third and fourth, respectively, in first-place votes. If more of their supporters had done as requested, it could have affected the final outcome of the election—even though neither of them were the first choice of more than one in six primary voters.

A similar scenario just played out in a special mayoral election in San Francisco, which uses RCV for local elections. Two of the three leading candidates, Jane Kim and Mark Leno, struck a deal before last week’s election, going so far as to hold a joint press conference and film an ad urging their supporters to give their second-preference votes to each other.

The other major candidate, London Breed, easily led in first-place votes, with 35% in an eight-candidate field—ten percentage points ahead of Kim and Leno. But, ranked voting tallies initially gave the lead to Leno. As additional mail-in and provisional ballots have been counted, Breed retook the lead and has been declared the winner.

That attempt to, in effect, gang up to try to stop Breed from winning, is considered one of the advantages of the RCV system. Why, they argue, should a controversial figure disliked by a majority of citizens get to win the office on the vote of a minority?

On the other hand, that’s exactly what party primaries do, and have done, for years and years. It’s seems a bit contradictory that Maine holds closed primaries—meaning that only registered party members can participate—but then dictates the rules for those primaries by virtue of a state law. Some party activists certainly don’t care for that idea.

Other political activists have argued to me that RCV often works to the disadvantage of underdog, outsider, or underfunded candidates. Instead of being able to focus on their core target voters, the argument goes, they need to gain widespread recognition to earn a high vote ranking from more than half the voters.

Consider the 10-Democrat primary to succeed Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, in Massachusetts. Under the current system, a candidate might win with less than 25 percent of the vote. State representative Juana Matias, who hasn’t raised enough money to run district-wide ads and mailers, might try to get to that 25 percent by focusing on being the first choice of Hispanic voters, and others in and around her Lawrence district. Under RCV, the argument goes, that strategy would be hopeless—only candidates with big bucks to spend on boosting their second- and third-place support, such as Daniel Koh and Rufus Gifford, have a chance in that scenario.

All of that remains theoretical for now; we really won’t know the positive or negative effects of RCV elections until there have been enough of them, in enough environments, to have some solid evidence.
That might be coming, judging by the interest in Maine’s example. “I’m certainly getting a wave of phone calls following [Maine’s primary] vote,” Bailey told me, from people in other states “looking at RCV as a solution to fix a broken political system.

Bailey says most are interested in following Maine’s lead of a popular-vote initiative, rather than trying to sway state lawmakers. For now, RCV is gaining more populist traction among disgruntled electorates, than among political officeholders, who tend to prefer sticking with the rules that have previously worked to keep them in office.

That’s why Galvin’s support is so interesting in Massachusetts. He has been at least as vocal in commitment to RCV as his challenger, Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim.But perhaps that’s not so upside-down after all. Zakim has turned out to be the candidate in that race with institutional support: endorsements from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, several Boston City Councilors, other elected officials, and the Massachusetts Democratic Party convention delegates.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that Zakim has not committed to supporting ranked choice voting; he did so in an address to a Voter Choice Massachusetts breakfast earlier this month.