MassLandlords turned some heads earlier this spring when our board of directors endorsed Voter Choice for Massachusetts’ Ranked Choice Voting ballot initiative. Yes, we are pushing hard for an initiative that progressive anti-property zealots are supporting. No, we’re not wrong to do so.
Ranked choice voting is a simple upgrade to the way we vote. Right now, we’re forced to choose one candidate. With ranked choice voting, we can list the candidates as “First choice, second choice, third choice” in the order we prefer. The effect of such a simple change on Massachusetts politics will be nothing short of dramatic, and not in the way progressives hope and conservatives fear.
John Adams Goes to Australia and Comes Back
John Adams wrote the Massachusetts constitution to require candidates for office to win a majority. If none did, all but the top two candidates would be eliminated, then a run-off election would be held some weeks later with the top two remaining on the ballot. The benefit was multiple parties fielding credible candidates. Voting for one’s top choice, even if that person were unlikely to win, did not ensure the opposite candidate would win.
Such double elections were costly. In 1855 we abandoned run-off elections. Since then, anyone has been able to win office with less than a full majority as long as they have the most votes. The result has been partisan jockeying for the smallest winning voting block. Candidates could win office on anti-immigration messages, as actually happened in Massachusetts when we enacted racist zoning in the early 20th century, as and still happens in the country at large, even if a majority don’t hold racist views. Event today in Massachusetts, officials like Cambridge Rep. Mike Connolly can be elected under a major party (Democrat) drafting legislation specifically to drive mom–and–pop landlords out of business, another anti-majority view.
Australia has, for a century now, combined the idea of a consensus-building run-off election with the cost savings of a single ballot. Instead of scheduling a separate election weeks later, voters list all preferences as if ordering an ice cream, not knowing which flavors were in: “I’d prefer cookie dough, or if they don’t have it, Oreo cookie, or failing that, mint chip.” It’s one ballot with no extra cost. And candidates have to campaign on positive, unifying messages that recognize economic realities, or else they don’t get enough second and third place votes to win. Australians have achieved conservative results on decisions concerning property rights using this system.
Progressives Overestimate Their Appeal
Progressives in Massachusetts are right to support this partisanship-reducing reform, but if they think it will help their proposed solutions pass over others’ objections, they overestimate their appeal.
Consider the eviction moratorium. It was a knee-jerk reaction to COVID-19 that has sent mom–and–pop landlords packing at twice the normal rate. Even as MassLandlords’ membership reaches all-time highs at 2,000 members statewide, our non-renewal rate, which tracks industry sell-outs, has doubled from 14 percent in February to 30 percent in August.
When the eviction moratorium’s chief sponsors pushed for rent cancellation in July, they were undercut by members of their own party confiding to MassLandlords that they don’t always read all bills before cosponsoring. That bill failed, and has been gut renovated into a tax credit with rent control. But still they are undercut, this time by the administration who recognizes that housing isn’t free. On Indigenous Peoples Day, Gov. Charlie Baker announced $171 million in funding for housing and rent relief.
The Massachusetts legislature may be 90 percent Democratic, but a majority of voters are not registered to either party. We have a Republican governor who cartwheels away from association with the Trump administration not because he’s surrounded by progressives but because Massachusetts voters don’t really buy into two-party politics. There wants to be a third party here.
Progressives, libertarians, greens and possibly housing advocates have enough coherence to form their own parties. Yes, they can elevate big issues like pandemic response, climate and race to the forefront. But no single party has the power to solve these issues unilaterally. Big solutions require consensus policies.
The absurdity of the current system is best demonstrated by examples like the 4th Congressional District (the Democratic nominee, Jake Auchincloss, has the support of only 21 percent of voters) and Fall River (former Mayor Jasiel Correia was recalled and then put right back in office, despite a majority wanting him out). Under ranked choice voting, anyone obtaining office has to demonstrate an ability to find common ground and build a voting block out of a majority.
We must increase the standard for elections from a fluke plurality to a coordinated majority. A majority of Massachusetts residents own their home. A majority of Massachusetts residents don’t buy into business-wrecking partisanship. A majority of Massachusetts residents know that big problems like surviving COVID and solving climate change without bankrupting businesses requires big, consensus-oriented coalitions, hard conversations and more than two (party) voices at the table. It’s time our elected officials represent the full breadth of Massachusetts politics, businesses and all.
Doug Quattrochi is executive director of MassLandlords Inc.