Last month, a new coalition set in motion an effort to implement ranked-choice voting in Boston's municipal elections. Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, allows voters to rank candidates on their ballots. 

This alternative method of casting votes is already in use in various communities across the country, including here in Massachusetts in Cambridge, Amherst and East Hampton. States like Alaska and Maine use ranked-choice voting for federal elections as well. 

Advocates tried to bring this voting method to our state in 2020, but over half of Massachusetts voters rejected a ballot question that would implement it in state elections. But it stands a better shot in Boston: Over 60% of city residents supported the measure. 

But first, it's important to understand exactly how ranked-choice voting works, as it’s a switch from the norm of picking just one candidate. Professor and Chair of Suffolk University’s political science and legal studies department, Rachael Cobb, joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to explain how ranked-choice voting differs from our system today. What follows is a lightly edited transcript. 

Arun Rath: We should also let our audience know that you are on the board of MassVOTE, and maybe we should explain what MassVOTE is and what that means.

Rachael Cobb: MassVOTE is a nonprofit organization and the main mission of MassVOTE is to mobilize voters to participate in the electoral process.

Rath: So, we mentioned that ranked-choice voting, as the name would suggest, has voters rank the candidates based on their preference. Can you explain how that works in reality? How would a ranked-choice election ballot look?

Cobb: Well, why don't we begin by not thinking about elections but just thinking about our daily lives where we are asked to rank things in our lives?

Let's say we are going to the store and need to buy some ice cream. We're told from the people at home that we should get vanilla, but if they don't have vanilla, we should get chocolate. And if they don't have chocolate, we should get strawberry.

So we've built into many of the choices that we make in our lives this attitude of, "If we can't get our first preference, we'll go with a second preference, and if we can't get that one, we'll go with a third..."

Rath: That's like a DoorDash order.

Cobb: Exactly. So this is precisely the kind of thinking that we're just bringing to the electoral process — to say, "We might have one candidate who we really, really like, but we would be okay with candidate number two and even okay with candidate number three, but maybe not okay with candidate number four."

So, it just enables us to actually say more on our ballot than we usually do when we're given a choice of, "Do you want this person or not?"

Rath: That sounds pretty straightforward, but critics talk about this voting process being more complicated. Do we have any sense of whether this could confuse voters?

Cobb: You know, I think we know from a lot of different examples in our lives of policies when they change. We are always challenged by the first time something is different, whether a crosswalk has changed a little bit on where it's placed, or whether the bike lanes have just been installed. These are things that are new, and so they require just some new thinking about it, but we ultimately get used to it.

And this is not so complicated that people haven't been able to do it, as you stated in your intro, in places not only across the United States but around the world. So, this is something that voters can do. As I said, when a policy changes, we have to adjust, but it's not confusing after the first go.

Rath: The other argument we've heard against this is that it could, in essence, dilute the power of someone's vote by throwing out that vote in favor of the ranked-choice candidate.

Cobb: I guess what I would say to that is: You have the option of actually just voting for one candidate if you want. Nobody is forcing you to make a second choice. You're given the option to have a second choice on this. So in that sense, your first choice is your first choice, and the way that ranked-choice votes are tallied on the other side is that the first thing that happens is everyone's first choice is essentially counted. So, the first thing we do is say, "For every candidate that was on the ballot, how many number one votes did they get?" And then we go from there.

So if somebody in a — let's say a three-way race — some one person emerges clearly with the most number number one votes, the election is over. There's no more counting to be done because that person clearly got it.

But in the case where perhaps someone had 43% of the vote — as was the case with Bill Clinton in the 1992 election, and then there was Ross Perot and President George H.W. Bush at the time — then they would go to the next round of votes and see the second choice of voters and see where those ones landed. And then that would determine the outcome of the election.

Rath: It's hard not to think about the 2000 election with Al Gore and Ralph Nader, or even 2016, with Hillary Clinton.

Cobb: Absolutely. And the interesting thing with the 2000 election, there were a few third-party candidates — Pat Buchanan being the one on the conservative side, and Ralph Nader being the one on the liberal side. Had the votes for those candidates been, essentially, given to the more moderate candidate, i.e., the Nader votes going to Gore and the Buchanan votes going to Bush — we would have seen, potentially, a different outcome.

Rath: Living in these very divided times as we are politically, and the level of distrust that exists among a sizable chunk of the population, when it comes to our elections, how does that affect the debate for ranked-choice voting?

Cobb: Well, it's interesting that some political scientists have started to investigate it, with the larger question being, "Does engaging in voting in a ranked-choice voting method, in fact, have an impact on people's view of democracy and support for democracy?"

And I think there are two things. One is: Preliminary evidence is showing that voters exposed to ranked-choice voting are more likely to support the winning candidate, even if they did not vote for that candidate. So, from a polarization perspective, that means that the legitimacy of the winning candidate is essentially enhanced through ranked-choice voting.

The other thing that advocates for ranked-choice voting say is that it means that the behavior of candidates themselves necessarily has to change a bit because they're not only going after their base and their core supporters, but they're also going after the people who might give them a number two ranking. And so, therefore, they have to moderate a bit to appeal to those people to try to bring them into their fold. So, that might have the overall impact of diminishing negative campaigning and, in fact, having a moderating force overall.