The Massachusetts Roots of Ranked Choice Voting

Published on May 3rd, 2017

Far from a radically new or foreign concept, ranked choice voting (RCV) is rooted in a rich history dating back more than a century in Massachusetts. Indeed, RCV owes some of its success around the world and its growing popularity in the U.S. to the innovative character of the Bay State. Today an increasing number of Massachusetts voters are revisiting that history and taking a fresh look at RCV as a solution to some of today's political problems.

The origins of RCV begin in 19th century England with the invention of a voting system known as the single transferable vote (STV).1 Under STV, voters rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference, and votes are tallied in a way that ensures proportional representation, meaning that political groups win seats in proportion to the strength of their actual voter support. Praised as an incomparably fair voting method by political philosopher John Stuart Mill, among others, STV married the two seemingly contradictory democratic precepts of majority rule and minority representation. Over the next century, use of STV spread through much of the British Empire to countries as far away as Australia.2

However, as originally devised, STV was limited to the election of multi-member bodies such as legislatures or city councils.3 Since proportional representation per se requires such multi-member offices, STV was viewed as inapplicable to the election of single-member seats, such as mayor, governor, or president. The question of how to fairly elect both single-member and multi-member positions, using a single voting method, was left unresolved.

That question was resolved in 1871 by MIT Professor William Robert Ware. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the time, Ware demonstrated how the same STV ballot and tabulation could be adapted to elect one candidate.4 This single-winner variant of STV, sometimes referred to as “instant runoff voting” or “the alternative vote,” has since taken hold in various countries and jurisdictions around the world, including many U.S. cities. Today, the term ranked choice voting encompasses both single- and multi-winner STV — a system that yields a majority winner for single-member seats and proportional representation for multi-member seats.

Not only is the Bay State the birthplace of single-winner RCV, but it is also the site of significant success in multi-winner RCV over the past century. In 1939, Cambridge became the first city in Massachusetts to enact RCV for the election of its City Council and School Committee (all elected at-large) and held the state’s first public RCV elections in 1941. Cambridge’s voting system is credited with boosting representation of political and ethnic minorities on its City Council, a council that has remained diverse under RCV to this day.5 Bolstered by the promise of fairer representation in local government, voters in Lowell, Medford, Quincy, Revere, Saugus, and Worcester adopted multi-winner RCV in the 1940s, as well.6

So how did Massachusetts go from seven cities with RCV in the 1940’s to only one (Cambridge) today? There is no single reason, but as Mount Holyoke political scientist Douglas Amy argues, in many ways the proportional representation form of RCV was the victim of its own success.7 RCV successfully weakened the control of party bosses over local elections and elected more diverse candidates — diverse in both political viewpoints and ethnicity. Then there was a backlash. A confluence of factors, including the desire of party bosses to regain power, coupled with prejudice directed against the newly diverse city councils, plus charges of un-Americanism, especially powerful at the outset of the Cold War, conspired to repeal nearly all the early enactments.8 Even though voters in Gloucester and Somerville approved RCV, in this political climate the state legislature took action to bar their implementation.

Fortunately, a lot has changed since the Cold War era. While machine politics, prejudice, and fear tactics are still with us today, so are the struggles against them. Moreover, those early voting reform efforts focused exclusively on bringing the proportional representation form of RCV to multi-member bodies like at-large city councils. Today, Voter Choice Massachusetts advocates ranked choice voting for all offices: single-winner RCV for single-member offices and multi-winner RCV for multi-member offices. Although RCV can still be hand-counted if necessary, ranked ballots are now normally tallied electronically, eliminating earlier concerns about the length and logistics of the vote-counting process.

Current use of RCV in Massachusetts is not limited to Cambridge city elections. Many of our most prestigious colleges and universities, including Harvard, MIT, and Tufts, use RCV for student government or alumni elections. Several public school systems around the state, including Boston, Lowell, and Somerville, ask parents to fill out ranked ballots to choose their preference of school for their children. While these public school preferences are not tabulated in the same way as ballots in a real RCV election, the task of filling out a ranked ballot is so natural and easy, we barely recognize it when we see it.

Trust in government has scarcely been lower than it is today.9 Voters are often frustrated with the lack of choices; campaigns are often negative in tone and lacking in substance; and outcomes often diverge from the will of the electorate. Many new ideas have been proposed to reinvigorate and civilize our political process. But sometimes the right “new” idea isn’t really new at all. Even 150 years ago, Massachusetts reformers saw the value of ranked choice voting in producing fairer elections, and it has been used successfully in this state in one form or the other for decades since.

  1. Hoag, C. G., & Hallett, G. H. (1926). Proportional representation (pp. 164-167). New York: Macmillan.
  2. Mill, J. S. (1861). Considerations on representative government. London: Parker, Son, and Bourn.
  3. McLean, I., & Urken, A. B. (1998). Classics of social choice (pp. 47). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  4. Hare, T. (1873). The election of representatives, parliamentary and municipal, a treatise adapting the proposed law to the ballot, with appendices on the preferential and the cumulative vote (pp. 351-355). London: Longmans.
  5. Douglas, A. (2014). The Effect of Fair Representation Voting on 2013 Cambridge, Massachusetts Municipal Elections. FairVote Research Report.
  6. Santucci, J. (2016). “Party Splits, Not Progressives: The Origins of Proportional Representation in American Local Government.” American Politics Research.
  7. Amy, D. J. (2000). “A Brief History of Proportional Representation in the United States.” Behind the ballot box: a citizen's guide to voting systems. Westport (Conn.): Praeger.
  8. Kolesar, R. J. (1996). “Communism, Race, and the Defeat of Proportional Representation in Cold War America.” New England Historical Association Conference (pp. 4-5). University Heights (Ohio): History Department, John Carroll University.
  9. Gallup. Trust in Government. Retrieved April 18, 2017, from