BOSTON — The crowded and chaotic Democratic congressional primary in Massachusetts that is now being recounted has fueled calls from election reform advocates for the state to adopt a system allowing voters to rank candidates on the ballot rather than select just a single one.
Ten candidates were vying for their party's nomination to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas. The top two vote-getters in the Sept. 4 primary, Lori Trahan and Dan Koh, wound up separated by only a few dozen votes after the initial count. The recount sought by Koh in the 37 cities and towns of the 3rd Congressional District is slated to conclude Monday.
Regardless of the outcome, the winner will have done so with just slightly more than 20 percent of the total Democratic votes cast in the race — a result that some see as troubling if not outright undemocratic.
"The candidates knew their roadmap was through the current system where they could only get one vote from a voter, so they weren't even trying to get to 50 percent," said Rob Richie, president and chief executive of FairVote, a Maryland-based organization that advocates for ranked-choice voting.
With only a plurality of votes needed, regardless of how small that might be, campaigns tend to focus on narrow bands of voters, producing an unsatisfactory outcome for a majority of voters and discouraging future participation in primaries, he added.
Richie calls the Massachusetts race a "poster child" for ranked-choice voting, in which voters place candidates in numerical order of preference, from their No. 1 choice down to their least favorite.
In June, Maine became the first U.S. state to use ranked-choice voting, often referred to as an "instant runoff," in a primary election. It took four rounds of tabulation for Attorney General Janet Mills to be declared the winner in a seven-candidate Democratic primary for governor, and two rounds for state Rep. Jared Golden to be crowned in a three-way congressional primary.
In a typical ranked-choice system, multiple tabulations occur when no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes. In each subsequent round, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and the next choice of voters whose top choice was jettisoned is added to the total, until a single candidate receives a majority.
Nearly a dozen U.S. cities, including Cambridge, San Francisco and Minneapolis, use a form of ranked-choice voting for municipal elections. Overseas, the system is deployed in several countries including Australia and Ireland, according to FairVote.
Will Massachusetts follow? No change is imminent, though advocacy groups such as Common Cause Massachusetts and Voter Choice Massachusetts hope the disputed congressional race and Maine's successful experiment might spur momentum. Democratic Secretary of State William Galvin, Massachusetts' top elections official, has expressed interest in the idea.
Legislation calling for ranked-choice voting was co-sponsored by 15 House members, but the bill received little attention and failed to reach the floor during the 2017-2018 legislative session. Advocates expect a similar bill to be filed for the next two-year session starting on Beacon Hill in January.
Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, is skeptical that the state's entrenched political establishment would ever embrace such a radical change.
"There are too many pressure points in favor of the status quo," he said. "I don't get the sense there is a pent up demand for it."
Maine's ranked-choice voting system resulted from approval of a statewide ballot question in 2016, and Richie believes a similar question could make it to the Massachusetts ballot as early as 2020.
While critics worry the system might be expensive to implement and difficult for voters to understand, advocates say most voters adapt to it intuitively and enjoy ranking candidates in order of preference.
"It allows for people to vote for who they like the best without hurting the candidate they like second best," said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts.
Another potential benefit: Candidates may well be more civil to each other and less willing to launch an attack that might anger an adversary's supporters, knowing that ultimately a voter's second choice could be equally important as their first.