Capitol Notebook: Prospects dim for ranked-choice voting

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The Legislature has hit warp speed as it works through the remaining bills that must be decided before its June 21 adjournment.

Lawmakers now measure their Augusta time in hours, not weeks, and as the number of bills gets smaller, the job gets harder. The thorny issues include action on a new two-year budget, which needs to go into effect July 1 to avoid a government shutdown.

The budget discussion has stalled on the issue of education funding, and the fate of the 3 percent tax surcharge on incomes over $200,000 that Maine voters passed last year to support education. Republicans are fighting the tax increase, and there are battles between and among the two parties. Something needs to be enacted this week to meet the deadlines to ensure that a budget is in place by July 1.

But the remaining legislative time is also complicated by the need for lawmakers to deal with ranked-choice voting, an attempt to overhaul Maine’s election system that voters approved in November. RCV in most Maine statewide elections, except primaries, has been declared unconstitutional by Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court. The Legislature must take some action, or risk a 2018 election where the results are challenged. If a lawsuit challenges the results because RCV is unconstitutional, it could be months before an election is decided.

This new system of voting, only used in 11 other jurisdictions nationwide, and not used by any other state, aims to produce a majority winner using successive rounds of tabulations. RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate wins a majority in the first round, the votes are re-tabulated, the last place candidate eliminated, and his or her second-place votes redistributed and so on, until a majority winner is achieved. But the Constitution comes into play because it requires only a plurality, not a majority, for elections for the Legislature and governor, and conflicts with RCV.

There are two major proposals to solve the RCV impasse. A proposal for a Constitutional amendment that would change the plurality language requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, followed by a popular vote. It would be doomed in this evenly divided Legislature.

Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, has proposed a bill to repeal ranked-choice voting. This could be passed by a simple majority, and will likely face a better fate in the Legislature, which needs to take some action to forestall a potential election disaster in 2018.

Legislators may search for a third way to solve this problem, and install ranked-choice voting in state primaries, and federal elections, which are not covered under the high court’s ruling. Former gubernatorial candidate Peter Mills has suggested that the ranked-choice voting system could remain in the party primary elections, where the turnout is often low and RCV could boost voter interest.

But once party candidates emerge, the general election would retain the same drawbacks that RCV was meant to correct: Multiple candidates for governor, for example, including independents, could divide the vote and the victor would likely be shy of a majority. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap has objected to running different election systems for primaries and general elections, but it could be done.

Ranked-choice voting is just one strategy to solve the deeper questions of how can we run elections to maximize the interest and involvement of the voters. Other reforms that have been proposed have stalled in the Legislature, including opening primaries to independent voters.

And if we really want to elect majority winners, it would be better achieved by runoff elections, with two rounds of voting. An initial vote could produce two finalists, and voters could focus on that choice in a subsequent vote, similar to the recent election in France. Those who oppose that idea often cite cost, and the reluctance of voters to return for a runoff election.

But if a two-round election would turn up the best candidate, cost should not be a barrier. And voter interest should remain high in a focused contest between the two final candidates with an extended opportunity for the candidates to make their case.

Unfortunately, a Legislature dominated by the two parties has never shown much interest in election process reform, which is what forced the referendum vote on RCV in the first place.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.

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  • Ted Markow

    The will of the people be damned!

    What a racket.

  • Chew H Bird

    Any system of voting where second, third, or other choices could amount in election of a candidate undermines the integrity of the process by electing a candidate that is not the first choice of voters.

    • Just Sayin’

      The integrity of the process has already been undermined by a two-party system. People vote not for their first choice, but for the party-backed candidate who stands a chance of winning because they’ve been propped up by the party and nobody else tends to have a chance of competing financially in an election.

      Look at this past year, where staggering numbers of people held their noses voted “Not Trump and “Not Hillary.” This is a sign that the integrity of the process has been lost. Allowing people to vote their mind and conscience is exactly what the founding fathers wanted, and exactly why the party-based legislature is so keen on denying it.

      • Chew H Bird

        I am not disagreeing on the lack of integrity demonstrated by the current process and our two major parties. I am saying that a system that involves second and third choices regarding the quantifying of votes is not the solution. You state, many people seem to vote for a “propped up candidate”. I agree although I have no data to support my opinion. However the implementation of any system that involves an algorithm will not be understood by the masses and as such will lead to even further corruption, (and risk as technology becomes the norm for vote counting).

        • Just Sayin’

          A system that involved second and third choices is EXACTLY the solution here.

          You agree that we see propped up candidates, candidates ‘too big to fail’, effectively. This is THE answer to that situation. In the latest presidential election as an example, all the people voting “Not Hillary” or “Not Trump” could have voted for any smaller candidate they felt like as a first choice if an RCV system were used. If there truly are fringe candidates, they’ll be eliminated from the running and the votes spent on them will get moved to candidates still in the race. There are no wasted votes in that system.

          This is the freedom that allows someone to vote their heart and conscience without worrying that they’re ‘throwing their vote away’. If we restore people’s freedom to vote FOR the person they want, and not AGAINST the person they fear, we may see some real change happening in election results. If people aren’t being herded by fear to vote with a party, they could vote on the issues that actually matter to them.

          Without second and third choices all we have is the current system, deadlocked in favor of the big parties. Without a ranked choice systems that’s all we’ll ever have.

          • Chew H Bird

            Rather than put a band aid on the voting process that many, (if not most) voters will not fully understand, our focus needs to be on the actual problem of only having two parties and the massive amount of sway those parties hold with voters. Think of the people trying to reduce the amount of corporate influence on elections and wanting to tax businesses and the wealthy at a higher rate… These are reactions, not responses to the actual problems. RCV is a similar concept in that it appeals to many but eventually covers up, for a while, the core problems of big money, political handcuffing, and a follow the leader pack mentality.

          • Just Sayin’

            I’ll agree on the idea that having only two parties isn’t good for the country, certainly. Beyond that, you’ve lost me here.

            Not only do you veer away from the topic to once again turn to the topic of reducing corporate taxes and regulations, (Which only digs us deeper into this mess) but you paint a big picture solution without any road map of how to get there.

            If you want to reduce the problems of big money’s influence in politics and voting, the first thing you need to do is empower the voters. RCV is still the answer to that. You paint it as if it’s hard to understand, but how hard is it to understand “My first choice couldn’t win, and is out of the running, so my vote goes to my second choice.” People understand the concept of having a first, second, and third choice quite well, trying to say that having a set of descending preferences is too complicated for most people is highly insulting to just about everyone.

            RCV is the best tool to free the voters from the shackles of two-party oppression. Once people no longer feel constrained to follow one of the two parties as the ‘only way’ to make their vote count, third (Or fourth, or fifth, etc) parties suddenly have a fighting chance to convince people to vote for them and be able to compete in a political landscape that is currently set up only to allow the two major parties to go head to head.

            And, on a side note here Chew, we’ve run across each other on a number of topics, and so far every time, whether it be voting or education, your go-to answer is to reduce taxes and regulations on corporations. Is there any issue you won’t shoehorn this advice into?

          • Chew H Bird

            The concept of people voting into office someone who was their second or third choice simply means that we are ready to elect someone who we didn’t really want. “I want to elect the winner in a head to head contest. I do not want “descending preferences”.

            As for corporations and regulations I am not a fan of either, but if we are to create a government that taxes lower and middle income people to the breaking point, and continue to provide some sort of government funds to more than 50% of our residents, we need to grow the revenue base.

            When I look at my own client base, 90% of revenue comes from out of state unlike 30 years ago when 90 percent was within Maine. It is simply a dollars and cents issue.

          • Just Sayin’

            I disagree entirely on your assessment of ranked choice voting. Just because someone is my second choice doesn’t mean it isn’t a candidate that I want. For example, in the last elections for leaders here in Maine, LePage would have been my last choice. It’s difficult to see how anyone could state that our elections are working as intended when independants have split the vote and very likely changed the outcome in the last several elections here. A lot of people’s votes were being cast in a way that meant they simply didn’t matter.

            For many citizens, it’s the lack of RCV that means they end up with someone they really didn’t want in office. RCV, if anything, reflects much more accurately the candidates people want, it’s simply worse at representing the candidates that the big parties endorse as the only candidates, which most voters would find to their benefit.

            On your next point, I think you made a mistake. I can say that I, at least, do not want to create a government that ‘taxes lower and middle income people to the breaking point.’ Traditionally the solution to that is to increase taxes on the wealthy. We certainly used to have a MUCH higher amount of taxes taken from the upper bracket, and America was still financially healthy and productive back then.

            I’ll also point out that if your figures are right, and 50% of people receive government assistance, 50 percent of new people in Maine will need that too, so simply getting more people to Maine may actually make these problems worse. Slashing corporate tax rates to bring more people in may well keep tax income stable while increasing expenditures. This is the sort of area where hard data and figures become vital in the decision making process, and we’re lacking that here.

            Also, the changing demographics in your business may have a lot more to do with accessibility than anything else. The Internet and the prevalence of shopping upon it have spread many business’s customer bases far outside of their own state lines. Remember that correlation is not causation when it comes to apportioning blame.

          • Chew H Bird

            I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do know that continuing on a path of increased debt, increased taxation, expanding the government safety net, exponentially increased healthcare costs, and newer “needs” for many people such as cell phone costs and internet access are cumulatively decreasing the middle economic class while technology improvement decrease the need for face to face labor.

            Online lawyers, online accountants, and in the not too distant future the “offspring” of Siri, Cortana, and Alexa will provide first line counseling services while static media (television) does away in favor of online content delivery will all become the norm of the next generation.

            As for my business, the simple bottom line is small Maine business can not afford what they used to afford while areas outside of Maine see my services as a bargain.

          • Just Sayin’

            You claim that government safety nets are helping to decrease the middle class, and I have to comment on that. How is it that you think safety nets are helping to dismantle the middle class, specifically?

            Most economists will tell you that the exact opposite is true. Yes, it takes money to say, provide someone with housing assistance, but in contrast, someone who does not receive that kind of assistance frequently ends up on the streets, and from there the most common paths lead to jail or to severe medical problems.

            A study came out recently and showed that the cost of jailing an individual each year costs more than it would to enroll someone in Harvard for the year instead, and that amount of money pales to the kind of expenses that can be chalked up for someone who needs to be brought in for emergency medical treatment, particularly when someone is so poor that they put off a medical problem due to money, and wait until it is immediately life-threatening and much more difficult and expensive to treat to go to the hospital.

            Money for jailing people and for public medical services also come out of your taxes, so the question comes down to: Are those safety nets really something you want gone, when eliminating them raises your financial costs AND the amount of human misery here in Maine?

            The truth is you might have an issue with how those safety nets are being paid for, but it seems unlikely that you’d really want them gone.

  • Moishe the Beadle

    RCV has been deemed unconstitutional. What is it about the word unconstitutional that its supporters don’t understand?

    The 3 percent tax surcharge is another Leftist scheme to re-distribute wealth by throwing more money at underachievement in public schools run by Democrats.

    • Just Sayin’

      You do realize that just because it’s been declared unconstitutional doesn’t mean that the issue is over, right? The people still voted it into law, and now the state needs to figure out what to do about it. Legislators can repeal it, reword it and resubmit it to the public, or amend the constitution to allow it.

      Nothing’s happened to take it off the table as a matter of debate, even if you’d personally rather keep money out of our schools.

      • Moishe the Beadle

        Thanks for the tutorial. I’m talking about bang-for-the-buck.

        1. “In 2013, the United States spent $11,800 per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student on elementary and secondary education, which was 28 percent higher than the OECD average of $9,200. At the postsecondary level, the United States spent $27,900 per FTE student, which was 89 percent higher than the OECD average of $14,800.” -NCES (National Center for Educational Studies)

        2. “A companion survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that just 16% called U.S. K-12 STEM education the best or above average; 46%, in contrast, said K-12 STEM in the U.S. was below average.” -Pew Research, Drew DeSilver, 2/15/17