The case for ranked choice voting

On April 8, 1913, Connecticut became the 36th state to ratify the 17th Amendment, putting the amendment just over the three-fourths threshold necessary to be added to the Constitution. After nearly 100 years of activism — uniting New England and the South; the Great Plains and the West Coast; urban states and rural states — pro-democracy and progressive advocates had delivered a key victory that greatly expanded the scope of American democracy. Senators were now to be directly elected for the first time in history. Through popular mobilization and consistent political pressure, the electoral system of the country was fundamentally transformed.

Today, Williamstown is at the vanguard of a new movement — one that shares the same fundamental vision of the progressive activists from a century ago. Ranked choice voting (RCV) historically has been a political oddity, a symptom of America’s federal nature that, like Nebraska’s unicameral legislature, seemed destined to remain as nothing more than trivia. Yet recently, after the divisive 2000 election and the polarizing 2016 election revealed the inherent flaws in our current voting system, the movement has gained a national second wind. In 2016, 52 percent of Maine voters elected to adopt RCV for statewide elections, becoming the first state in the country to do so. In 2020, a similar initiative, Measure 2, passed in Alaska, implementing RCV for the second state in the union. Across the country, a growing number of cities and towns, from San Francisco to New York, have begun implementing RCV for local elections. Cambridge, Mass., has had RCV since 1941, and Amherst, Mass. (yes — Amherst!) just voted in the past month to include RCV in a revision to its town charter. 

Now, for the first time in 67 years, Williamstown is beginning to conduct a review of the Town Charter, giving RCV activists the opportunity to enshrine a new voting system in our local governance. The Williamstown Charter Review Committee now faces a critical choice: Stand in solidarity with those seeking to improve our democracy or turn away from a historic opportunity and ignore the wills of Town residents, who voted by a margin of nearly 30 percent to adopt this change in a 2020 statewide referendum. I hope Williamstown will make the right choice,and that the Charter Review Committee will recommend amending the Town’s charter to implement RCV.

RCV presents an alternative way to conduct our elections. Rather than simply voting for a top choice, voters in an RCV system have the option to “rank” candidates in order of preference (as those familiar with the Williams Student Union election system are sure to know). If a candidate receives over 50 percent of the votes, they are immediately elected; if not, the lowest vote-getter is “knocked out,” and the votes are redistributed based on the second choice of the voters whose primary candidate was eliminated. 

The change is simple, but the results are profound. RCV elections will reduce polarization, reduce strategic voting (voting for the candidate most likely to win rather than your actual preference), and reduce the grip of the two-party system on American politics. By adopting this initiative, the Town can improve our local government and give momentum to a critical national movement.

As RCV is implemented across the country, candidates will have to appeal beyond narrow party bases to attract second and third rank choice from voters. Gone will be the days of scorched earth, hyperpartisan politics. Campaigning focused on squeezing out every single possible vote from your base of support by hammering in a single message will be ineffective compared to candidates who seek to represent a broader array of interests through consensus. Candidates will have to reach out across several ideological aisles as they court supporters of other candidates and implement core demands of groups that may not be enough to single-handedly elect a candidate but can swing a race. Demonizing an opponent will alienate their supporters, and RCV’s disincentive for such an approach will go a long way toward healing national divisions.

In the 2013 Boston mayoral election, a total of 12 candidates from varied backgrounds entered the race. Six were candidates of color. Yet the two candidates to advance from this blanket primary, soon-to-be Mayor Marty Walsh and City Councilor John Connolly, shared the same background — white, Irish men. They received 18 percent and 17 percent of the city vote, respectively; Charlotte Golar Richie, a Black woman, received 14 percent of the vote. Had any of the other Black candidates dropped out, Richie could have been elected mayor. Indeed, Black activists had considered asking one of the candidates to drop out for that very reason.

There is no reason that giving voters more choice in a democracy should leave them with an option they preferred less, yet that is exactly what happened in Boston. This “spoiler effect” is widely known, yet it goes beyond simply leading to less popular candidates winning. Candidates with new ideas seeking to energize new coalitions are locked out due to fear of being a “spoiler” for a candidate with establishment support. Candidates with similar backgrounds and ideologies are forced to negotiate “backroom deals” to avoid splitting the vote, or face the same fate that occurred to candidates of color in Boston.

More importantly, the party primary process makes building a cross-party coalition almost impossible, as candidates would first need to secure a majority in the arbitrarily assembled party coalitions. Pro-life socialists, gun-safety promoting conservatives, and conservative conservationists are all locked out of the political process unless they conform to cookie-cutter profiles necessary to advance in party primaries. This process results in the creation of a two-party democracy — our country is simply too big to have only two party answers.

To those that say that Williamstown elections don’t face these problems: The 2014 Select Board election and the 2016 Planning Board election both included close races where candidates acted as spoilers that could have altered the outcome of the race. To those that say that RCV is simply too complex for America: We trust the judgment of Americans to control the levers of political power in our country. We can trust them to be able to rank their preferred candidates in order.

The time for action is now. We are in a prime position to reform our local democracy and build momentum to change our national one. We owe it to past activists and advocates to whom we made promises to continue improving and invigorating American democracy. We owe it to ourselves to move past the polarization and lack of choice that shapes our current political culture. And we owe it to the future to build a better democracy that we can pass on to those who will come after us. Williamstown currently stands at the frontier of an opportunity to evolve the American experiment, and I hope that student-activists, Townspeople, and the elected government will heed the call to action. 

Carlos Hernandez Tavares ’25 is from Bethesda, Md.