When Jesse Mermell conceded in the Democratic primary fight in Massachusetts’ Fourth Congressional District — where voters chose between nine different Democrats seeking to replace Joe Kennedy III earlier this month — she hinted that, if the election had worked differently, she might be celebrating instead.

“If the ranked-choice voting campaign needs a new face, give me a call, guys,” Mermell said in a videotaped announcement, seated in front of a message board emblazoned with the phrase “JESSE MERMELL FOR RCV.”

It wasn’t idle speculation. Ranked-choice voting — or RCV, as it’s often called — will be the second question on the ballot this fall in Massachusetts. And it has a real chance of becoming law: recent polling shows voters are split, with nearly a third of the electorate undecided.

So what is ranked-choice voting, exactly? And why does Mermell think it would have changed the outcome?

“The way to think about [it] is that it’s an instant runoff,” said Evan Falchuk, who ran for governor in 2014 as a third-party candidate and is leading the state’s ranked-choice push.

“When people have runoff elections” — e.g., Boston’s quadrennial mayoral contests — "you hold an election one day, and then you see how the votes come out, and then you eliminate the candidates that didn’t meet whatever the threshold is,” Falchuk added. “And then you hold another election.

“With ranked-choice voting, you do that instantaneously.”

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Supports of ranked-choice voting say the recent Democratic primary in the Fourth Congressional District, where Jake Auchincloss squeaked past Jesse Mermell, strengthens their argument. So do opponents.
Courtesy of the campaigns

To get a sense of how it works, consider the crowded field in the Massachusetts Fourth, where Mermell got 21 percent of the vote and the winner, Jake Auchincloss, got 22 percent.

In a ranked-choice system, voters would be able to rate all nine candidates — identifying their first choice, their second choice, and so on. The ballots would then be counted, and if one candidate got a majority of first-choice votes, they’d win.

If not, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes would be eliminated from contention. On the ballots that had them at number one, the second choice would become the new first choice. Then the process would repeat, until one candidate cracked 50 percent.

“The winners of every election would be earning a majority of the vote,” Falchuk said. “Right now, we have situations that happen a lot in Massachusetts — and not just in Massachusetts, around the country — where people win, like in the Fourth Congressional District, with 22.5 percent of the vote. It’s not to say that a person who wins like that isn’t good. It’s just not fair to win an election that way.”

Something similar happened in 2018, in the Democratic primary in the Third Congressional District, where Lori Trahan defeated nine other candidates with 22 percent of the vote.

In Maine, voters approved ranked-choice in 2016 — partly, University of Maine Political Scientist Amy Fried says, in response to Paul LePage’s victory in the 2010 governor’s race.

“LePage ... was a Tea Party Republican who’s called himself Trump before Trump,” Fried said.

In that race, voters eager to stop LePage split their votes between an independent candidate, Eliot Cutler, who finished in second place, and Democrat Elizabeth Mitchell, who finished third. (Two other candidates, both independents, received a much smaller share of the vote.) LePage ended up winning with 38 percent.

In 2018, with ranked-choice on the books, Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin lost to Democrat Jared Golden after winning the most number-one votes, but not a majority. When LePage, who was governor at the time, certified the results of that election, he described it as “stolen,” Fried notes.

Still, Fried insists there’s nothing inherently partisan about ranked-choice as a system.

“Be careful what you wish for, if you think this does have a partisan slant,” she said. “Because it won’t necessarily, in every time and every place.”

She cites Maine’s unusual system for allocating its four electoral college votes, which gives two votes to the candidate who wins statewide, and distributes the other two to whichever candidate (or candidates) wins a plurality in each of the state’s two congressional districts.

In 2016, that yielded three electoral college votes for Hillary Clinton and one for Donald Trump. But if ranked-choice had been in place then, Fried says, voters who backed the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, might well have listed Trump as their second choice — and Trump could have won three electoral college votes rather than one.

In Massachusetts, though, the opposition to ranked-choice voting seems to be coming from the right. Critics include the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance and Anthony Amore, the Republican candidate for secretary of state in 2018, who contends it asks too much of voters.

“From a pragmatic point of view, I think it’s a very bad system,” Amore said. “Political scientists know, and the average person can intuit, that people don’t go into the booth with a heck of a lot of information.”

In a crowded race like the aforementioned Democratic primary in the Massachusetts Fourth, Amore suggests, this could be especially problematic.

“There were razor-thin separations between the candidates, not just in terms of the vote, but in terms of ideology,” Amore said. “I follow politics very closely, as you know — I couldn’t tell you what the difference between Jake [Auchincloss] and Jesse [Mermell] was. I really couldn’t.”

Asked about this critique, Falchuk notes that, in a ranked-choice system, voters could rate as many or as few candidates as they felt qualified to evaluate. He also said Amore is underestimating voters’ ability to handle complexity.

“I think voters are pretty smart and pretty sophisticated,” Falchuk said. “They don’t need to be sophisticated to do this, but they’re also smart enough to know how.”

What’s more, Falchuk said, by pushing candidates to reach beyond their base, ranked-choice would make politics better for everyone.

“I remember as a candidate, if I was going to visit someone’s house when we were canvassing and I saw a sign for one of the other candidates in front of their house, you don’t go to the house because you know they’ve already decided,” Falchuk said. “But in a ranked-choice environment, you go talk to that voter.”

But would ranked-choice have changed the outcome in the Massachusetts Fourth?

It's possible. Auchincloss — a former Republican who calls himself an “Obama-Baker voter” — was widely seen as the race’s most conservative candidate, with Mermell and the rest of the field running to his left. In a ranked-choice race, if enough supporters of the less viable progressive candidates identified Mermell as their second or third choice, their redirected support might have been enough to put her over the top.

Falchuk, though, is quick with a caveat.

“You’d have to run the election differently,” he said. “Every one of those candidates running in that race was working on a strategy to win with a plurality of the vote. They all knew the winner was going to have 25 percent or less, so they all ran their race that way.

“If they were all running to say, ‘Hey, let me be your second choice,’ who knows what would have happened? But it sure would have been more interesting.”