August 15, 2023 ·
I recently visited a youth summer program organized by Ranked Choice Boston, a new coalition aiming to bring ranked choice voting to the City of Boston’s elections. The campaign officially kicks off August 16 with the goal of convincing the City Council to pass a home rule petition adopting RCV in 2024.
The students and I didn’t need to look far to figure out why RCV would be beneficial to Bostonians. We met in Dorchester’s Little Saigon neighborhood, which sits in City Council District 3, represented by Frank Baker. Baker was elected in 2011 in a runoff election following the preliminary election which was rife with possibilities for vote-splitting and spoilers and might have undeservedly sent Baker and his opponent to the runoff.
This is one of the dangers of plurality (or first-past-the-post or winner-take-all) voting, the familiar system where voters simply select their top choice. It takes so little information from the voters that it is blind to any nuance in their preferences, and the method’s mistaken view of the will of the people can easily propagate to the runoff round.
The 2021 Boston mayoral election was historic, with 95 percent of voters casting their ballots for a woman of color in the preliminary for the city’s highest office. But even this contest could not escape plurality’s systemic flaws. It is likely that Andrea Campbell and Kim Janey, two Black women candidates, split the vote, meaning that each of them was possibly more deserving of a spot in the runoff than Annissa Essaibi George. If Campbell or Janey made it to the runoff, the general election would have reflected the preference of more voters, providing a healthy and competitive challenge that no doubt both Michelle Wu and the city’s electorate would have welcomed.
The peril is even more glaring in the elections of the four at-large Boston City Council members. All Boston voters select up to four names out of the pool of candidates. With this procedure, a contingent of voters can force all the winners to be candidates of their choosing. Such was recently the case in Lowell, where Asian and Latino residents were shut out of representation on the City Council and the School Committee because of bloc voting by white voters. (Following a 2017 lawsuit, Lowell changed the way it conducts its elections.)