Ranked choice voting, the subject of Question 2 on the November 3 ballot, will certainly improve the election process in general. If enacted in Massachusetts, as it has been in Maine and some cities, it will make it impossible for a candidate to win an election with less than a majority of the vote. It will end spoiler candidates, when a third-party candidate splits the vote with an otherwise popular candidate, allowing a less-popular person to win the election.
We wondered, as we exchanged emails with a letter writer last week, whether ranked choice voting might also encourage voter participation. It seems logical that a person would be more likely to vote if they had more confidence that their vote made a difference.
A lengthy article published by Politico in February following the release of a Knight Foundation report largely debunked that idea. The Knight Foundation, according to Politico, conducted the largest survey of nonvoters ever, polling some 13,000 people across the country.
The tendency in past studies had been to attempt to group nonvoters demographically, by age, sex, race, income, religion and political leaning. But the Knight Foundation found that nonvoters cannot be characterized demographically; they are no different than active voters.
The Knight report rather found that voting is a social behavior, a social norm. If a person is surrounded by and interacts with people who vote, they are likely to, and vice versa.
Nonvoters are less likely to volunteer in their communities, belong to a church or otherwise interact with others. They are less likely to be informed but are content to “bump into” news. And here is where social media is a troubling presence. A decade or two ago, there were fewer entertainment options. People largely watched the same television programming, including news programs. Today there are myriad options including, of course, Facebook, where views routinely bump into inaccurate information.
Removing barriers to voting is obviously important, and programs to encourage voter registration, such as automatically signing up those who renew their driver’s license, will help. But it might be more important to teach civic engagement in the schools and starting at a young age.
So, will ranked choice voting increase voter participation? Only time will tell, and we hope it has a chance to.