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Logic-Checking Ranked Choice

Time to take a break from national and viral politics to logic-check a local issue on the ballot in my home state of Massachusetts.

Massachusetts publishes a detailed voter guide to ballot initiatives that it mails to every household in the Commonwealth. In addition to running down the mechanics of how to vote, the guide also provides voters with the full text of each ballot question and a description of what changes a “Yes” or “No” vote will bring, both politically and fiscally.

Most importantly (for our purposes, anyway) the voter guide also includes arguments for and against each initiative, written by organizations urging “Yes” or “No” votes on each question.

This year, there are two questions on the ballot, one about who gets access to motor vehicle maintenance data, and one on replacing the Commonwealth’s “first-past-the-post” system of voting for state officials with balloting based on a system called ranked-choice.

Those interested in auto-repair politics can read a discussion of a similar question that was put to Massachusetts voters in 2012 in Critical Voter, but today I’d like to look at arguments from the state voter guide for and against ranked choice (published in their entirety at the end of this post).

As background, ranked-choice voting (at least the version proposed for Massachusetts) replaces the current system in which every voter selects a single preferred candidate (with whoever receives the most votes winning the race) with a system that allows each voter to rank their first three choices in order. When votes are counted, if one candidate receives a majority (i.e., 50% + 1) of #1 rankings, the race is called in their favor. But if no candidate gets to that threshold, mathematics takes over.

What this means is that whichever candidate got the fewest #1 rankings would be eliminated from the race and, if ballots for that losing candidates included #2 choices, those votes would turn into #1's for whichever remaining candidate they chose. If this leads to one of those remaining candidates getting past the 50% mark, the race is done. If not, the process continues until a majority winner emerges.

You can see an example of how the system works in on this site that also includes arguments for and against different voting alternatives.

Focusing on the pro- argument provided in the state voter guide, Shauna Hamilton of the group Voter Choice for Massachusetts provides an explanation of the ranked-choice voting process, similar to the one you just read, and also claims that the new system addresses three problems with our current election process:

Big money and corrupt special interests have too much control over our democracy
Politicians can win with less than a majority and independents are shut out
Politics are tearing us apart, preventing solutions to major challenges

If we were to construct an informal argument based on the pro-statement, it would conclude that replacement of first-past-the-post with ranked choice would solve these three major problems, or at least lead to improvement in all three areas. But of the three problems she lists, only the second seems like something that would be impacted directly by the proposed change in how we cast and count votes.

Since elections still involve people selecting preferred candidates (whether just one or a ranked choice of three), big money and special interests could still influence the vote, even if they might have to change their strategy to take advantage of a system where getting their way involves manipulating people’s rankings, rather than their single choice. Similarly, the pro- argument does not explain why the new system would result in more moderate candidates, or candidates who prefer finding solutions to major challenges, rather than continue “tearing us apart” due to partisanship taking priority over policy.

In fact, even if the proposed new system solved one of the problems Hamilton lists (provided better chances for independent candidates to win elections), this could lead to victories by small-party or single-issue candidates which have the potential of making politics even more rancorous.

While we could boil down Hamilton’s statement into an informal argument and measure that argument's strength, even an initial qualitative analysis points out the argument’s central weakness: not providing adequate reasons to believe the conclusion (that we should replace our current voting system with a new system based on ranked choice). Given the centrality of reasons-for-belief in critical thinking, I’m left assigning Voter Choice for Massachusetts’ argument just three dumbbells:

The con- argument, written by the group Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, relies on authority figures to support the claim that ranked-choice is confusing to voters and could lead to anti-democratic results. In this case, those authorities are the governor and former governor of California who have criticized ranked-choice voting in their state over those alleged shortcomings.

Whenever an argument relies on authority figures, one should be on the lookout for an informal fallacy called argumentation from authority. This fallacy does not state that any reliance on authority should be suspect. Rather, it asks you to determine if the people being put forth as authorities you should rely on have appropriate expertise and are making claims relevant to the argument.

Citing Albert Einstein on matters of war and peace, for example, could be construed as an authority fallacy, given that Einstein’s expertise is in physics, rather than geopolitics. This does not mean we should not consider his opinion as seriously as we would consider the opinion of any very, very smart person. It simply means that we should not assume his stature as one of history’s greatest scientists gives him authority in other fields.

In the case of the California governors, it’s safe to say that leaders of a major state have relevant expertise on voting and electoral politics, so we should not dismiss their opinion simply because they got into office through a system the Massachusetts ballot initiative would eliminate. The fact that both governors are seen as progressive might also be playing a role in an argument designed to persuade voters in a progressive state like Massachusetts.

The second paragraph of the con- position is the most substantive in either argument, highlighting several potential flaws in ranked-choice voting beyond voter confusion. For even if voters understand that they are picking their top three choices in order, rather than just selecting one, a ranked-choice system could lead to:

  • Voters making selections blind to the eventual mathematical dynamic that will ultimately select the winner (replacing simple winner-take-all mathematics with game-theory calculations based on unknown interim vote counts).

  • Voters’ ballots not counting if they don’t make the right ranked choices. As a simple example, someone who voted for the candidate who got the most votes in the first round (but not an overall majority) who did not have #2 and #3 preferences would have no say in calculations that might end in their #1 choice losing the race.

  • Candidates who receive far fewer initial #1 votes than others ultimately winning the race. An example from California in which a mayor’s race was won by someone who started from a very low ranking also illustrates potential problems with ranked-choice in contests where lots of candidates are on the ballot.

Unlike the pro- argument that lists benefits unrelated to the measure being argued, the con- argument provides three relevant reasons to believe the conclusion: that voters should reject ranked-voting in Massachusetts. While those reasons are not spelled out as clearly as they could be, they do provide sufficient reasons to suspect ranked-choice voting might bring with it a new set of problems, rather than solutions to our democratic woes. Given this, I’m going to award Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance four dumbbells:

Keep in mind that this analysis does not prove that the conclusion of the con- argument is true and the pro- argument false. Nor does it mean the logic being either argument is unassailable, or that different better or worse arguments can't be made supporting either position. It simply means that - in this case - one group has provided more and better reasons to believe the conclusion they are arguing.

As a logic checker and critical thinker, you should know by now that reasons-for-belief are not abstractions but are as real and concrete as facts that can be proven true or false.

Ballot Question Arguments (from the Massachusetts Voter Guide)

IN FAVOR: A YES VOTE adopts ranked choice voting, a common-sense reform that puts more power in the hands of voters.

Ranked choice voting addresses three problems:

  • Big money and corrupt special interests have too much control over our democracy

  • Politicians can win with less than a majority, and independents are shut out

  • Politics are tearing us apart, preventing solutions to major challenges

It works by giving voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference. You can vote for just one candidate like you always have, or you can rank your first, second and third choice. If your favorite candidate doesn’t win, your vote is instantly counted for your second choice so candidates must compete for every vote. Ranked choice voting ensures the winner has majority support and reflects the true will of the people.

A YES VOTE gives voters more voice and will help make our democracy stronger.

Shauna Hamilton

Voter Choice for Massachusetts

44 Temple Place Boston, MA 02111


AGAINST: Two Democratic Governors rejected ranked choice voting because it was confusing and denied voters informed choice. Democratic Governor Jerry Brown witnessed a mayoral election in Oakland where the winner won with voters’ seventh and eighth place rankings. Governor Brown said, “Ranked-choice voting is overly complicated and confusing. I believe it deprives voters of genuinely informed choice.” Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom said Ranked Choice Voting “has often led to voter confusion and the promise that ranked choice voting leads to greater democracy is not necessarily fulfilled.”

Ranked Choice Voting ballots force voters to guess the candidates who will remain standing in multiple voting rounds and cast their votes in the dark. If they guess wrong and vote for eliminated candidates, their ballots are not counted in the final vote. Winners win a false “majority” of remaining ballots, not a true majority of all the voters voting in the election.

Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance

18 Tremont St., Suite 527

Boston, MA 02108 6



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