By Nathan Lockwood

Even though baseball season had begun, no one anticipated this curveball so close to the upcoming September Boston City preliminary elections. Plaintiffs, supported by currently seated white Boston city councilors, challenged the new city council district maps through the Voting Rights Act (VRA) for taking race into account too much – to the detriment of predominantly white neighborhoods. Not the typical VRA case, and a surprising one in Boston with its history of discrimination against black residents. On May 8th, 2023, Federal Judge Patti B. Saris ruled:

“Plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success in showing that race played a predominant role in the City Council’s redrawing of Districts 3 and 4 in the enacted map, and Defendants have not demonstrated that the enacted redistricting map is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling interest.”

As a result, Judge Saris indicated, “The ball is back in the City Council’s court,” to update the maps to address the concerns.

The Boston City Council can be commended for converging quickly in this crisis, after a very contentious start, approving new council district maps in time for the upcoming contests. Councilor At-Large Ruthzee Louijeune’s work was central to pulling the council together to make a decision. She pointed out the conflicts of interest that elected officials face when drawing their own districts, referring to the process as having the ugliness of “sausage making”. 

The perpetual crisis of confidence in districts

Coverage like Danny MacDonald’s “With three competing maps, Boston’s redistricting drama continues” about the city council’s redistricting negotiations gave us all a window into the tragedy that unfolds when intelligent, well-meaning representatives of the people are forced to compete on behalf of their constituents in a zero-sum game.

Five kids, one lollipop… Six people on a sinking boat, one life preserver… Tens of thousands of people, five communities of interest in a district, but only one representative. And if you think this is just another black-white Boston thing, it’s not – the same things have been happening in even uglier fashion in the demographically futuristic American cities of Los Angeles, Compton, and San Francisco, to name just a few.

The standard proposed solution to this problem is “Independent Redistricting Committees” (IRCs), as well argued in the Boston Globe editorial “Boston’s redistricting mess makes the case for independent commissions”. This change would add a very valuable element of procedural fairness. The problem is, even the best constructed IRCs alone are incapable of adequately addressing the underlying problem, for the same reasons Lani Guinier laid out in the Boston Review in 1992.

A proven and straightforward solution

Bigger, better districts

It’s time to change the game to one that everyone can win, since we’re all supposed to have representation – that’s why we left Britain in the first place. One of the best solutions draws heavily from Boston’s Irish heritage, where they’ve had it figured out for over one hundred years.

  • Instead of nine, single-member, winner-take-all city council districts that chop up neighborhoods and separate members of communities, Boston can go with four districts, each electing four councilors, and all drawn to fully respect neighborhood boundaries.
  • Voting in each of these districts is basically the same as it is for Boston at large members now and the preliminary election retained, except instead of “picking” four of eight candidates in the general, voters will simply “rank” four in order of preference, and the votes get counted with single transferable vote

This is also a nice improvement in experience for voters over traditional at large voting because with the ranking, you no longer have the dilemma of bullet voting to maximally support your favorite. You just rank your favorite first and up to three more you care about after. Unlike now with picking, when you rank all the candidates you like, you are still doing everything you can for your #1 without the penalty of wasting 75% of your voting power.

How the counting works

Here’s how the counting process works:

  • Each round, we only count the top active ranking on each ballot (starting with just the first choices).
  • Candidates who have more than 20% in a given round win one of the seats.
  • If a popular candidate draws more support than needed to get elected (more than 20%), to preserve the full value of their supporters’ ballots, the “extra” portion of each vote beyond what was needed counts for the next choice on each ballot. If we did not do this, that part of the ballots would be “wasted”, like paying the dealer an extra $10K for a new car above list price for no reason.
  • If a voter’s first choice doesn’t have the support to win a seat, their ballot will count towards their next choice. This way, you can always feel confident to vote for your favorite first, even if they may not have the support needed to win. You have backup choices. And new candidates can choose to run without fear of penalizing other similar candidates.
  • This counting repeats like this until all four seats are filled.

The benefits of bigger

Here’s some other benefits of these bigger districts that elect four people instead of one:

  • Better for “minority groups” To get elected, a candidate needs to get 20% of the vote. This means it’s easier for sizable minority groups (whether political, racial, or other) to elect leaders they favor. Using only single-member, winner-take-all districts groups that are a minority in a city as a whole often cannot be drawn into a majority district, even if the mapmakers want to. So they typically lose in every district, every election. By combining single-member districts into bigger multi-member districts with ranked choice voting, voters with similar interests are no longer artificially separated by lines on a map. Minority groups can pool their voting power across the bigger district and consistently win meaningful representation.
  • Better for “majority groups” Because the district is electing four people, not just one, if there is some kind of “majority” community of interest in the district, they will likely elect more than one representative, giving more voice to the distinctions within that larger group — older/younger, male/female, more conservative/more liberal, etc.. These distinctions within groups in some cases may cut across different group identities, creating valuable inter-group connections.
  • One person one vote Every voter gets a single vote of equal strength that counts toward electing one or more candidates.
  • Protects the voting power of individuals and groups Allowing voters to rank their choices helps make as many votes as possible count as much as possible, in a fair way.

Multi-member, ranked ballot systems like this are:

  • Reflective – Nearly everyone is consistently represented (more than 80% of voters).
  • Gerrymandering-resistant – Very high rates of representation nearly eliminate any meaningful impact of district drawing on outcomes.
  • Resilient – Ending the single-winner take all approach means community representation is stable and much more resilient to major, rapid shocks/swings from demographic, social, and political changes, such as gentrification, immigration, fluctuations in turnout, change in generational cohorts, district drawing by new political actors, etc..

In a multi-member district system with ranked ballots, change on Boston’s city council composition would be highly responsive but smooth, continuing to accurately reflect the whole population of the city as it evolves, alleviating prevalent anxieties in many different communities around disenfranchisement and displacement.

In a multi-member district system with ranked ballots, change on Boston’s city council composition would be highly responsive but smooth, continuing to accurately reflect the whole population of the city as it evolves, alleviating prevalent anxieties in many different communities around disenfranchisement and displacement.

Too good to be true?

More tribes represented, less tribal behavior

If you are concerned that everyone getting a representative they like is a recipe for even worse “tribalism”, that’s a legitimate concern, but it turns out to be the reverse. Preferential voting systems, where voters rank candidates, have dynamics that encourage respectful political dialog between candidates and communities. Proportional systems like this one also reduce the ability of polarizing factions to dominate elections. This is why this system was a cornerstone of implementing the Northern Ireland peace process.

Simpler is not always better

Ranking a ballot is both simpler (no bullet voting strategic calculations) and better (benefits listed above) for voters compared to what Boston does now. 

It is 100% true that it is more complex to count ballots under ranked choice voting than for first past the post. It’s also totally doable. Ireland has been hand-counting these elections for over 100 years and we have computers to help us. Of course a change like this requires voter education to be fully successful, and numerous US cities have shown how to do that very effectively.

Very few travel by foot across the country because they object to the complexity of trains, planes, and automobiles. Drinkers don’t stay with water over whiskey or beer because those intoxicating beverages are “more difficult to make”. Similarly, if we want better elections, ranked choice voting is the way to go. Compared to the administrative (like say, the tax code), technical, financial, medical, logistical, etc., work that undergirds much of our modern life, this new voting system is by comparison extremely simple.

The ballots are easier, the process and its results better and more fair. The modest increase in counting complexities are reserved for election staff and their tools, who can and should be provided with more support and reliable technology to compensate.

Bigger, but not too big

The bigger multi-member districts have benefits. If we made the districts too big (larger than five members), we could start to lose some of the ballot simplicity benefits for voters, who would have too many more candidates to evaluate. A sweet spot of 3 to 5 members is recommended. For similar reasons Boston should retain its preliminary election to continue performing a winnowing function and allow for the most digestible ballot in the decisive general election. With ranked choice voting, the preliminary could be eliminated with cost savings, but the value of simplicity for voters likely outweighs doing so.

Geography still gets its due

Looking at maps in cities where similar voting systems are used, not surprisingly, each of the individuals elected still tend to draw most of their support from specific geographic areas – neighborhoods where communities live. The differences are, under a multi-member, ranked choice system, many more people get trusted representation. The answer to what is most important for representation is given to people through their ballots, and the power to privilege geography above all else is taken away from the mapmakers.

Making Boston “next level” strong

What all this means is that within these bigger districts, Boston voters would effectively be drawing their own lines for their chosen communities, and those communities electing their own representatives

Boston voters would effectively be drawing their own lines for their chosen communities, and those communities electing their own representatives

Individuals make these choices through their ranked ballots along the dimensions most important to their own personal or group identities, priorities, and values, and the “single transferable vote” counting method serves as a decentralized coordination mechanism that turns their rankings into representation that best reflects the groups of voters. This, as opposed to our current voting methods, where lines on the map become more determinative than anything else, and many are left without trusted representation.

Mathematically and historically, a configuration like this will consistently lead to more than 80% — 4 out of every 5 — of voters seeing one of their favorite candidates elected. It’s just that the lines emerge based on what people want, they’re not imposed by a process that is static and flawed by design.

We’ve seen Boston develop an exciting and MUCH more inclusive politics over the last decade. That’s worth celebrating. But there is more work to be done to both protect these advances and get Boston to an even better place. That is what these changes can help achieve. A Boston that represents and respects differences can unite on shared values, and a unified Boston is a stronger Boston.

A Boston that represents and respects differences can unite on shared values, and a unified Boston is a stronger Boston.

It doesn’t get much closer to everybody winning than this. Portland Oregon just voted for a charter that creates council representation in four, three member districts like this and is now implementing. Boston can, too.


Nathan Lockwood is Executive Director of Rank the Vote. He played a leading role in founding and growing Voter Choice Massachusetts both as the regional lead for Central Massachusetts and through various statewide roles. He also served on the board of directors of the Voter Choice Education Fund.

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.