Thoughts on Massachusetts Question 2

This fall, Massachusetts voters will decide on preferential (aka ranked choice) voting. Political science is polarizing on the larger issue, although there is an impressive and diverse list of scholarly endorsers, at least in this case. Here are some observations on the Massachusetts measure.

First, let’s be precise about what’s on the ballot. RCV will apply to “all state and federal elections in Massachusetts, both primary and general elections,” but not presidential elections (per the Yes on 2 website).

The measure would not affect the composition of primary electorates. In other words, it would not let Republicans influence Democratic nominations, nor vice-versa, any more than the current rules. Under those rules, according to the group Open Primaries, unaffiliated voters already may vote in the primary of either party. Registered Republicans and Democrats, however, must vote in their respective parties’ primaries (or not at all). RCV in Massachusetts would not change this rules constellation.

Other recent RCV proposals would change primary electorates. These proposals incorporate California-style “top two,” better understood as a nonpartisan two-round system. Such systems do not let a party advance a single candidate (or slate) to the decisive election. My understanding of “top two” is that it has been hard on Democratic Party establishments, and organized labor in particular. One can imagine those fortunes changing, but, for now, this seems to be the big effect.

Also, it is crucial to understand the reform coalition itself. In Massachusetts, as far as we can tell, it is Libertarians, “libertarians,” and a good chunk of the Democratic Party establishment. The measure therefore reflects a broader, ongoing realignment in American politics. I suspect these groups would coordinate anyway, in the absence of a ranked ballot, given the current state of the Republican Party brand.

One common argument in reform circles is that RCV stimulates candidate entry, and victory, by women and people of color. The fact that it worked out this way in the California Bay Area may have more to do with the reform coalition than the reform itself. One of my current research projects is to see whether the reform itself plausibly has this effect. My priors really are not sharp. On the one hand, the Alternative Vote is a very modest reform. Far more important are district magnitude and the size of an assembly. On the other hand, at least recently, women have tended to do well in both single-seat RCV and runoff systems. The runoff evidence is from Cynthia McClintock and Joseph Cerrone, who presented yesterday in my APSA panel. Their evidence comes from Latin America and shows that, in recent years, women have done better under runoffs than in single-round systems. The RCV evidence is from Represent Women (and does not cover non-RCV cases). Finally, some have argued that MA needs RCV because its primaries already are crowded. Maybe that says something about the effect of reform itself.

It also is worth noting that, historically, in foreign countries, single-seat RCV has been used to stop the economic left from winning. British Columbia in the 1950s and Australia in the 1910s are glaringly obvious cases of this. Again, however, this may have more to do with reform coalitions than the substance of reform itself. A similar reform (runoffs) once was used to insulate a liberal-labor coalition. Many left-labor-type groups formally support the MA measure: an SEIU local, Our Revolution, etc.

Overall, the Massachusetts package feels pretty “safe.” If anything, it seems like it will let people do what they plan to do anyway.

I do not have a favorite reform

We are going into another season of reform. A friend asks: “do you have a favored electoral reform or does FPTP make the most sense given America’s racial diversity?”

The short answer is: no favorite, and my (personal) yea/nay mostly depends on comparing the specific status quo with the specific replacement proposal.

Beyond that, here are some things I tend to think about when evaluating reform proposals. These are just quick thoughts, written on my way to bed.

1. The composition of a reform coalition is a pretty good signal of possible policy effects.

2. Generally, the public does not shape its own preferences. We form opinions about candidates (and reforms!) by consuming media and talking to friends (who also consume media). The same probably goes for marking ballots.

3. Every community tends to cleave into two opposing camps. This is related to the process by which our views get shaped. It may not happen immediately, but if you have to place a bet, you should bet that it will happen.

4. No coalition lasts forever, which probably is good, but you still have to live with the winning one, which might (or might not) be bad.

5. Details are crucial, even if they tend to fly under the radar. Even with PR writ large. For example, is there some guarantee that the minority (which might be you) will be at the table?

6. The fact that we’re even talking about reform is interesting in itself.

7. We live in a context of diminishing voting rights. Things may or may not get worse.

8. Fundamentally, people matter more than rules. People make the rules!

Good luck!

Essential reading for reformers

The current PR (aka RCV) movement is very much a continuation of one that died in the 1960s. That is, this movement has come out of abeyance.

Since most of the work is concentrated in cities, here are two essential pieces of political science.

In the old days, winning PR (and ranked ballots in general) depended on political compromise — combining the desired reform with rules that other people wanted. And, as I have shown in research, this made it easy for many cities to remove PR from such “packages” on adoption.

1) Bridges, Amy and Richard Kronick. 1999. “Writing the Rules to Win the Game: The Middle-class Regimes of Municipal Reformers.” Urban Affairs Review 34 (5).

2) Trebbi, Francesco, Philippe Aghion, and Alberto Alesina. 2008. “Electoral Rules and Minority Representation in U.S. Cities.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 123 (1): 325-357.

The first piece argues that reformers were successful where (a) middle-class people could be made to fear immigrants and (b) Progressive Era voting restrictions allowed the middle class to constitute a referendum majority. Note that, in this paper, PR charters are not distinguished from non-PR charters.

The second piece argues that, after voting rights were restored, reforms developed during the Progressive Era spread throughout the American South, as a way to dilute the votes of re-enfranchised persons. Needless to say, these later “reforms” did not include PR.

Some are likely shaking their heads at a piece I co-authored last week. This is partly why I wrote it. Our generation can have effects that are unforeseeable, and that we might deeply regret.