Preferential voting

Why this approach gets my vote

The outcome of the election for the Representative from the 2nd Franklin District (where I don’t live) makes a strong case yet again for instant runoff in Massachusetts elections.

Denise Andrews won with 45.3 percent of the vote; Susannah Lee had 44.8 percent and Richard Schober Jr. had 10.4 percent. We will never know what the outcome would have been had the election been a head-to-head race between Andrews and Lee.

We have had many similar elections in Franklin County, like the Greenfield mayoral elections and the primary races for Register of Deeds. In fact, most primary elections are like that. In such elections, many voters don’t vote for their preferred candidate because they don’t want to see their vote wasted.

In plurality voting, the kind we’re used to, the winner is simply the candidate with the most votes. That can lead to a perverse result where candidates with similar views kill each other off. For instance, suppose in an election there are two liberal candidates, each receiving 30 percent, and one conservative, who receives 40 percent. The conservative candidate wins even though liberal candidates, in general, are preferred. The same thing happens, of course, with two conservatives and one liberal.

With instant runoff, one of the several forms of preferential voting, voters can (but need not) record their first, second and third choices. When it was determined that Schober couldn’t win, Schober’s second-choice votes would have been assigned to Andrews or to Lee. The will of the voters would have been expressed. Instant runoff can also be applied to elections such as for a school board in which more than one person is chosen.

Preferential voting is already used in Australia and in Cambridge, Mass. In the presidential election, Gary Johnson (Libertarian) and Jill Stein (Green) probably would have gotten far more votes than they did, though Obama almost certainly would have won anyway.

If preferential voting had been in effect for the 2000 presidential election, Gore would probably have captured most of the second-place votes for Nader and would have won New Hampshire and Florida — and with them the presidency. Yet in the 1992 election, most of the second-place votes of the Perot voters would probably have gone to George H.W. Bush, enabling him to defeat Clinton.

Third parties are often strong supporters of preferential voting since it demonstrates how much popular support they have. Yet it also helps major parties by removing the threat of “spoiler” candidates. In some elections, the Republican would likely gain second-place votes from the Conservative candidate, while in others the Democrat would likely gain second-place votes from the Green candidate. I don’t know enough about the 2nd Franklin District to hazard a guess as to where Schober’s votes would have gone.

Voter confusion might be an objection, since ballots would necessarily be more complex. But astute ballot design, combined with voter education, should effectively dispose of that objection, especially since a voter is not obligated to list second or third preferences. Australia and Cambridge show it can be done.

Furthermore, if a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-place votes, that candidate is elected immediately. So in many elections it isn’t even necessary to consider second or third choices. A voter need not specify second or third choices at all, so those who are confused by preferential voting can just vote for a single candidate as they do now.

At one time, a strong objection would have been the difficulty of counting votes, but now that votes are usually counted by computer, that objection is no longer valid. It would be well worthwhile for many reasons to provide computerized vote-counting for those small towns that don’t already have it.

Optical scanning, which we fortunately have in Deerfield, provides automatic counting with the possibility of manual recounts in disputed elections.

No system of voting is perfect. That isn’t just my opinion; it’s a surprising mathematical fact, demonstrated by the economist Kenneth Arrow in 1951. Arrow, who won a Nobel Prize for his work, proposed three very reasonable criteria for fairness of an electoral system and then proceeded to show that no system can satisfy all three. We must do the best we can.

Since most elections in Massachusetts are governed by state law, the state is the level where the change must come first. You can learn more about it at

Paul Abrahams is an author and computer consultant living in Deerfield.

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