In a special session on Wednesday, Town Meeting voted in favor of implementing ranked-choice voting in Lexington’s municipal elections. The vote was 115 in favor, 49 against, and 7 abstentions.
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to select multiple candidates in their order of preference rather than just voting for a single option. Candidates must receive a majority of the votes to win. Votes are tabulated using everyone’s first choice; if no one wins a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is knocked out of the race, and their votes go to supporters’ second choice option. The process repeats until one candidate has a majority.
Advocates say the system expands voters’ choices and invites more voices into the democratic process.
The current voting system discourages people from voting for third-party or other less well-known candidates because of the so-called “spoiler effect” — a vote for a less mainstream candidate can be seen as taking a vote away from a candidate with similar views who is more likely to win. A video presentation shared at the meeting on Wednesday cited Green Party presidential candidates Ralph Nader and Jill Stein as examples — both were labeled as spoilers for having received votes that would otherwise have likely gone to Democrats, which some say helped to elect Republicans George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Coincidentally, Stein, a Lexington resident and former Town Meeting Member, announced her candidacy for the 2024 Green Party presidential nomination on Thursday.
Ranked-choice voting would allow people to “vote their conscience without inadvertently throwing the election to the candidate that they least want,” said Lexington resident Adam Harrington. The current system “discourages people from voting, especially young people, when they see a system that doesn’t seem to care about their interests, their specific policy preferences,” he said.
The conventional voting process also discourages lesser-known candidates from running for office, says Sreeni Chippada, one of the initiators of the citizens’ petition to bring ranked-choice voting to Lexington. “Ranked-choice voting is going to bring non-incumbents into the mix” and lead to “more minority candidates on the ballot,” he said. Chippada believes this is especially important in a town with a large minority population, like Lexington. “The representation here doesn’t reflect that,” he said, looking out at a room full of mostly white faces.
Skeptics said ranked-choice voting is too complicated, particularly in races with more than one open seat, for example School Committee or Select Board elections. “I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent person,” said Scott Burson, a Town Meeting member representing Precinct 9, who said he was still struggling to wrap his head around ranked-choice voting. “We’re being asked to adapt a very complex system which, in multi-seat elections, substitutes something we all know very well with something that’s just different,” he said.
Salvador Jaramillo, who represents Precinct 5, said that he appreciates the benefits of ranked-choice voting, but doesn’t necessarily see it as the clearest solution to the problems it’s supposed to address. “My hope is that voters will not see ranked-choice voting as a panacea for all of Lexington’s issues when it comes to election turnout and leveling the field for political newcomers, but I do think it’s a great start,” Jaramillo told LexObserver. “Personally, I would love to see us shift our spring elections to the fall to match up with state and federal elections like most other cities and towns do across the country, and even look at alphabetizing all candidates on ballots as opposed to automatically placing incumbents at the top.” (Jaramillo, the youngest member of Town Meeting, is also a student at Harvard, and brought a group of classmates to the meeting to witness the democratic process in action).
Several people who spoke against ranked-choice voting said that they supported implementation at the state or national level, but didn’t think it was necessary in Lexington, where seats are often uncontested.
But supporters said that it’s important for Lexington to lead the way on this issue. A state-wide ballot initiative to bring ranked-choice voting to Massachusetts was defeated in 2020. Now some advocates are pursuing a town-by-town strategy. “We know from talking to people that voted against it that they didn’t necessarily vote against it because they were opposed, they just weren’t able to take the time to figure out what it was,” said Greg Dennis of Voter Choice Massachusetts. “Since it was during the pandemic, we had a limited ability to meet people in person to explain it. Now we’re doing that at a local level.”
“Just as Lexington was a leader in the American Revolution 250 years ago, let her be one of the leaders in adopting ranked-choice voting in Lexington, which will help convince our state legislators, and eventually the entire country, to follow,” said Margaret Coppe, a Town Meeting member and leader of Lexington’s League of Women Voters.
Lexington’s plan for ranked-choice voting will apply to positions including Select Board, School Committee, Planning Board, Housing Authority and Town Moderator, but will not include Town Meeting members. The town’s current voting machines can handle ranked-choice voting, but the change will require new software that’s expected to cost $12,500. The new system won’t be implemented immediately. State lawmakers need to approve the change before it can be used in an official town election.
In Massachusetts, the cities of Cambridge and Easthampton already use ranked-choice voting; Lexington will join about a half a dozen other towns that have voted in favor and are waiting for state approval. Nationally, New York City and 28 other cities and towns use ranked-choice voting for local elections, and Alaska and Maine use the system for state and federal elections. About 10 countries around the world use ranked-choice voting in national elections, including Australia, Ireland and India.
“It’s important for us to add our voice to the growing chorus, both in the state and around the country,” said former State Rep. Jay Kaufman. In response to concerns about the complexity of ranked-choice voting, Kaufman said “the communities that have voted for this have not had problems with this, but have found that it has enhanced democracy.”
Lexington’s own 2024 presidential candidate saw the town’s move as encouraging.
“Congratulations to Lexington Town Meeting for leading the way to more democratic, inclusive elections through ranked choice voting,” Stein wrote in an email to LexObserver. “I hope our example is emulated far and wide, in local, state and national elections.”