by Vernon K. Walker
first published in Commonwealth Magazine
“I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, 1967
Dr. King spoke those words to a crowd of 400,000 exactly one year before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The words have never lost their power, their meaning, or their relevance. But it is clear that since then, too little has changed for marginalized communities of color in this country.
This time, however, it does feel different. It does feel like a revolution of values and that more Americans are listening and ready to forge a new path towards creating a more just and equitable world. But what has been obstructing real change since, say, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, has not necessarily been a lack of political will to institute fairer policy, but rather the division, dysfunction, and ugly lack of civility in our politics that seems to grow worse each passing year. This November, residents of the Commonwealth will likely have an opportunity to address many of the root causes of these political defects by supporting a Massachusetts ranked choice voting referendum.
Ranked choice voting would be a simple change to the way we vote that gives voters the power to rank candidates on the ballot in order of their preference: top choice, second choice, third, and so on. If one candidate achieves a majority of the first choice votes, the majority candidate takes office. But in the event that no candidate achieves a majority in the first round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from consideration, and those votes will then count towards the next choice on each voter’s ballot. The process continues until one candidate has majority support, ensuring that candidates with a broad base of support are vaulted into positions of power. It would take power away from candidates with excellent name recognition or large donation coffers and spread it across the ballot sheet.
So, what’s the connection between ranked choice voting and issues of equality, or Black Lives Matter, or the sustained protests that have swept the country?
Historical context is key here. In recent weeks, people have been flocking to the streets in protest, millions of white Americans are really listening to the plight of so many of their fellow Americans and many are taking action, and countless public figures are speaking up or even apologizing for past views. All of this has reinvigorated the civil rights movement in such a manner that would make any civil rights advocate optimistic.
But we’ve also seen this movie before. Rodney King battered on camera by multiple police officers. Freddie Gray’s gruesome murder in Baltimore. Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. Atatiana Jefferson. Mike Brown. George Floyd. The list is tragically long and traces all the way back to the beginning of the American experiment.
Regardless of these atrocities and the subsequent movements that followed each of them, few significant federal policy changes have been made in the wake of these crimes or to address the underlying social, economic, and equity issues that make them possible in the first place. Not because no one is trying, but because few are willing to do the hard work of working together.
Ranked choice voting is key to addressing some of the political hurdles that creates the dysfunctional “us vs. them” political system, which is exactly what is standing between this movement and real change in our neighborhoods. Voters have resigned themselves to a system that allows extreme partisanship to dominate our electoral process. Candidates then conduct themselves in a similar fashion once they’re governing because, well, it helped them get into office (often without a majority) and they’ll need to win again in the future.
With ranked choice voting, candidates need to speak more universally because they need to appeal to a true majority to win. It would make candidates focus on their constituencies more universally. Black voters represent a small portion of the population in relative terms, but we are perhaps the defining voting constituency of our time and need to be heard.
A candidate who uses wedge issues to divide voters into “us vs. them” or relies mainly on divisive social issues to find support would find themselves with a losing strategy under a ranked choice voting system. That’s because drumming up support from a fiery fringe base is ineffective when voters choose multiple candidates. Extreme candidates from both left and right wings would face tougher campaigns against candidates who can appeal to a majority of voters and lead based on unity, not just the fringe base on either side. That’s how democracy is supposed to work: the majority rules and the resulting public policies reflect a constituency’s wants, needs, and expectations.
Dysfunction in America’s elections and policymaking has become the rule instead of the exception. If candidates knew they needed to draw a broad base of support to be elected or reelected, we would see much greater cooperation across the aisle and our politicians would need to develop habits of action and compromise to move policies forward. This stands in stark contrast to the current system, in which stubbornly painting the other side as obstructionists – while refusing to consider any ideas other than their own – is the norm.
Ranked choice voting would create a more amiable atmosphere where candidates could focus on policy agreements or disagreements instead of personally attacking each other or each other’s base because they know they’ll have to answer to voters in a more universal way when it comes to their election season.
Furthermore, implementing ranked choice voting would encourage more women and candidates of color to run for office and diversify local, state, and federal political representation. Living experience is important and perhaps essential for systemic and radical change to happen. We need more diverse perspectives to have a seat at the table of power. Ranked choice voting would help with this issue because it levels the playing field and creates opportunities for fresh voices by giving all candidates a chance to compete and win.
Ranked choice voting is a commonsense fix that would give voters more control over their government, stem the polarized climate we find ourselves in, and most notably get government back to working for the people. Across the political spectrum, there is a shared belief that our system is broken. There are many solutions being debated for how to repair these systemic issues, but no one is willing to work together to solve them without innovations like ranked choice voting.
Rev. Vernon K. Walker is a board member of Massachusetts Peace Action, the public policy director of the Young Democrats of Massachusetts, and a Democratic State Committee member. To sign a petition in support of the RCV referendum, visit: https://sign.voterchoice2020.org/