By Michael Garman
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Andy Anderson, a professor and academic technology consultant at Amherst College. Professor Anderson was one of the original supporters of Voter Choice Massachusetts (VCMA), the statewide organization from which Rank the Vote developed. He played a pivotal role in the 2020 campaign in favor of Question 2, which would have implemented ranked choice voting (RCV) in Massachusetts. The effort made tremendous strides but came up just short of the ultimate goal of passage. In our interview, we discussed Dr. Anderson’s role with VCMA, the importance of effective and strategic messaging for RCV advocates, and the future of the cause in Massachusetts and across the country.
Professor Anderson joined VCMA in 2017, right as the movement was beginning to take shape. He had first learned about RCV around the time of the 2000 election – which almost certainly would have gone to Al Gore had Florida been using the system – and was “intrigued right away.” When he discovered VCMA, which sought to bring RCV to his home state, he knew he wanted to become involved. Contributing decades of expertise in technology, data analysis and communications, he soon became an integral part of`the burgeoning drive to reform democracy in Massachusetts.
One of Professor Anderson’s first major VCMA projects was a sophisticated analysis of the results of the 2018 congressional elections in Maine, which used RCV for the first time. He focused on the race in the Second District, which was decided by second choices. Incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin won a plurality but lost the election, as rankings revealed that the constituents preferred his Democratic opponent, Jared Golden, to him. Combining sophisticated quantitative analysis of the raw data with thorough examination of the qualitative political factors at play, he developed a strong understanding of “how and why ranked choice voting works for everyone, and what we need to do to get different groups of people on board.”
The insights he gained from this research, as well as other experiences as an early member of this grassroots push, gave him the skills needed to take on one of the most pivotal and challenging responsibilities on the campaign: fact-checking and responding to opposition messaging. Dr. Anderson developed highly effective strategies for addressing what he refers to as “stock arguments” – oft-aired false claims that RCV is fraudulent, undemocratic and untrustworthy. These rebuttals are now among the most valuable resources in the toolkit used by organizers for Rank the Vote’s state partner groups across the country.
Professor Anderson breaks the opposition to RCV into several categories. Each group has different reservations about the policy and must be convinced in its own way.
First, and often most vocal, are voters who are staunchly opposed to sweeping electoral changes. These people are often falsely convinced that RCV is a partisan scheme that will elevate candidates they oppose and undermine those they favor. This, of course, is untrue – it works in favor of the majority, regardless of who it supports. Showing these individuals some of the many examples of cases in which RCV helped or would have helped candidates with whom they align is an excellent tactic to reduce this demographic’s mistrust.
Additionally, many are skeptical of the need for change and fear that RCV would be too complex to practically implement. Polling data, however, show that this is decidedly not the case – the vast majority of citizens in jurisdictions where the method is used find it easy to learn. Dr. Anderson, who has spent his career interpreting and presenting statistics, is well aware of the persuasive power of a carefully curated set of figures and has faith in their ability to rally support for the cause.
Finally, Professor Anderson reports encountering a substantial amount of opposition from supporters of other structural electoral reforms. Addressing the concerns of these individuals is a very different task from responding to those of the other two groups discussed above. In some ways, he explains, it is easier, “since they’re already on board with eliminating [FPTP].” However, it also poses the challenge of building solidarity within the movement and not alienating many of those whose beliefs are most closely aligned with ours. He believes that the ideal approach here is to remind those who prefer alternative measures, such as approval voting and STAR, that their objectives are the same as ours, while convincing them that RCV is a more effective path to a truly representative democracy.
The chief advantages of RCV over the rest, Dr. Anderson holds, are that “it allows you to express preferences…[and] doesn’t disincentivize weighing in on multiple candidates the way other systems do.” With approval voting, there is no way to differentiate between strong and weak support – every candidate for whom one expresses approval is treated equally. Moreover, both of these alternatives can have the unintended negative effect of discouraging voters from backing multiple candidates for fear of elevating them at the expense of their top choice. RCV, again, elegantly avoids that issue, providing people with the opportunity to make their voices heard on all candidates but preventing them from inadvertently boosting backup options so long as their favorite remains in the running. Changing the status quo is difficult enough as it is – activists should not make the task even more daunting by splintering into factions.
This is especially true in states such as Massachusetts, where VCMA in just four years took RCV from an obscure idea virtually unknown outside arcane academic circles to a powerful force that came within five percentage points of becoming law. While supporters were very pleased with the rapid rate of progress, a monumental achievement, any campaign that does not reach its desired outcome cannot be considered an unqualified success.
I asked Professor Anderson why he thinks VCMA fell just short of the finish line and what could be done differently to ensure victory in 2026 (the next election in which a Massachusetts RCV proposal is allowed to appear on the ballot) – and in other states before then. He pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions imposed as a result of the public health conditions it created as a major factor responsible for the defeat of Question 2. “We couldn’t speak to voters face-to-face the way we wanted to,” he explains, emphasizing the importance of outreach and conversations addressing people’s individual reservations about RCV to the success of movements. Lacking the capacity to make the proposal less of an unknown quantity, VCMA lost the votes of many whose fear of the unfamiliar would likely have been addressed in an environment conducive to traditional canvassing. Had he been able to see the future, Professor Anderson “definitely” would have opted to delay Question 2 to the next election cycle. This would have given VCMA an extra two years to educate citizens and return to normal outreach as the virus subsided.
The fact that VCMA achieved such positive results, even under remarkably difficult conditions at a relatively early stage in their advocacy, makes Dr. Anderson “very optimistic” about the future of RCV in Massachusetts and across the country. As more jurisdictions implement RCV and find success with it, organizers elsewhere will have an easier time attracting support for the cause. “People [will] say, oh, it’s been working in my town. We haven’t had any issues. The town next door is using it too. So it couldn’t hurt to have it in the state,” he says, expressing his belief that it is often best to work on the local level – as he has done in `Amherst and Northampton, Massachusetts – and then harness that energy to launch a statewide campaign. As pro-RCV forces post more successes across the country, they will build momentum and make subsequent progress easier. The work will not be easy, but the future is bright. We can put our democracy back on track, one step at a time.
Michael Garman, a rising sophomore studying political science and history at Yale, is a Digital Organizing Intern at Rank the Vote.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.