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Ranked elections rejected by Massachusetts, in doubt in Alaska

Voter at Fenway Park

Voters in Massachusetts, including those who cast early ballots at Fenway Park, came out against ranked-choice voting in the Bay State.

Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Proponents of ranked-choice voting have failed in their attempts to bring the alternative election system to Massachusetts and are confronting a potential defeat in Alaska as well.

The twin setbacks would amount to a big reversal of fortune for one of the darling ideas of democracy reform: Allowing voters to list candidates in order of preference, then reallocating the secondary choices of the poorer performers until one person emerges with majority support. Maine is now the only state using ranked elections almost exclusively

But a switch to so-called RCV for municipal elections was approved in two cities in California, two in Minnesota and one in Colorado. And voters in St. Louis voted to embrace another alternative election format for local primaries called approval voting.

Advocates say that conducting RCV elections will eliminate the harshest partisanship and spur more consensus-driven politics, tamp down on negative campaigning, weaken the major party duopoly and promote the election prospects of women and people of color. Opponents label the system as unnecessarily confusing and prone to manipulation (if not fraud) by smart and well-funded candidates.

In Massachusetts, voters rejected the idea with a solid 55 percent opting against it — a margin of 308,000 votes with all but a handful of votes yet to be counted Thursday.

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Cara Brown McCormick, campaign manager for the effort, conceded that proponents "came up short" but praised all those who worked on the ballot initiative. Paul Diego Craney, spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said his side defeated the proposal "because its costs far outweigh its very limited benefits."

In the end, most of the state's high-profile Democrats were behind he measure and most Republicans, including Gov. Charlie Baker, opposed it.

The proposal in Alaska would combine ranked-choice voting for some federal and state offices in general elections with open primaries for state executive, state legislative and congressional offices where the top four finishers would have faced off under an RCV system in the fall.

With votes cast in person early and on Election Day tallied — almost three-fifths the expected total -- the proposal was being rejected by a lopsided 65 percent of Alaskans. The 55,000 vote gap could shift and potentially be reversed when 152,000 mailed ballots are opened and counted starting Tuesday, however, and proponents of the package said they had reason for optimism that would happen.

Under RCV, voters are allowed to support more than one candidate, ranking them in order of preference. If no one wins outright with a majority of first-choice votes, the person with the fewest No. 1 votes is dropped and those ballots get redistributed based on their No. 2 choices — the process repeating in an instant, computerized runoff until one candidate has a majority of support.

Backers of ranked-choice voting found success with ballot measures approved in Eureka and Albany, Calif., as well as Bloomington and Minnetonka, Minn., and in Boulder, Colo. — continuing a string of wins at the local level, capped last year by a switch to ranked elections in New York in time for next year's mayoral race.

The mayor and city council will be chosen using RCV in Eureka, Bloomington and Minnetonka. In Albany, the new system will be used to select members of the city council and school board; Boulder will use it to choose the mayor.

Voters in St. Louis, meanwhile, voted 2-1 to switch next year to an election system sometimes viewed as a rival of RCV for the attention of those who say American democracy isn't benefiting from the traditional system: Voters select one candidate, and the one with the most votes win.

The approval voting system will allow voters to check as many as they can live with in all-candidate primaries, and the two endorsed on the most ballots will square off in the general election. Proponents say this will improve the prospects of Black candidates for mayor and council in one of the nation's biggest minority-majority cities.

Ranked-choice voting almost played a role for the first time in a Senate race, but incumbent Republican Susan Collins of Maine emerged as the winner Wednesday as returns neared completion and she barely crested 50 percent of the vote.

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