Torn voters, let’s rank those candidates

Published as an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe:

WHEN IS a democracy not a democracy? When a candidate wins an election with only 30 percent of the vote.

Last week offered just one more chilling example of the “spoiler effect’’ in our current election system. Six candidates fought for the Democratic nomination for the Middlesex, Suffolk, and Essex state Senate seat. Three of them — all progressives from Cambridge — spoiled the election for one another; they split up the vote in a way that ensured the victory of Sal DiDomenico. The winner received three-fourths of his votes from his base in Everett, but only 30 percent of total votes cast throughout the whole district.

This is a far cry from a majority mandate, and it illustrates the flaws in a voting system that requires only that a candidate get enough votes to squeak past his or her opponents. The problem isn’t just that elections can be decided by a small minority of voters. If there happen to be multiple candidates whose views or political bases overlap, those candidates end up punishing each other. Meanwhile, a candidate who holds on to a loyal voter base — even a relatively small one — wins the entire election.

If elections are like the free market, then more competition should reward the candidate who has the broadest base of support. Instead, time and again, our voting system rewards the candidates who are, in one way or another, outliers.

So, how do we make a democracy work like a democracy? How do we ensure a majority winner in practically every election, no matter how competitive, no matter how many candidates are running?

Simple: we adopt a system of “ranked-choice voting,’’ also known as “instant-runoff voting.’’ Voters rank the candidates on the ballot — 1, 2, 3, and so on. Then the ballots are counted in a series of runoffs. The candidate who finishes last in each round of balloting is eliminated, and his voters are reassigned to their next-favorite candidates. The process repeats until one candidate receives a majority.

This system frees voters to make backup choices while voting honestly for their top choice — even if they suspect that candidate doesn’t have a good chance of winning. The fear of “throwing your vote away’’ is a thing of the past.

Ranked-choice voting is also great for candidates, since never again would they be pressured to drop out of the race because of the potential to spoil the election. This isn’t just a theoretical risk. About a month ago, I attended a meeting of the Progressive Democrats of Somerville, where members were discussing this very Senate race. As expected, the issue of vote-splitting came up, and a few members openly speculated whether one or more of the Cambridge progressives could be convinced to drop out to prevent another “spoiled’’ election.

Alternative voting systems have been criticized as impractical or overly complex for voters. But ranked-choice voting works. Currently, the city of Cambridge and more than a dozen other municipalities around the United States use the system. Internationally, the United Kingdom, Australia, Ireland, India, and many other countries use it, too, as do more than 40 colleges and universities to elect student officers. The Republican National Committee used ranked-choice voting to elect Michael Steele, its current chairman.

Here in Massachusetts, it’s strange and unfortunate when civic-engagement groups feel moved to consider discouraging people from running for office. This state already ranks the lowest in the nation for state-level electoral competitiveness. But we can’t blame well-meaning activists for strategizing in this way. Because in the end, they’re right. In election after election, their own worst premonitions come true.

Adam Friedman is an executive board member of Citizens for Voter Choice, an organization that advocates for ranked-choice voting.