Capitol Notebook: Second thoughts on ranked-choice voting

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A fiercely disputed election for governor in 1879 almost brought civil war to Maine. With three strong parties, including the Greenbacks, nobody won the majority vote that was then required by the state Constitution.

The dispute then landed in the Legislature, where accusations were hurled back and forth. Republican U.S. Sen. James G. Blaine wanted to protect his Republicans and threatened to bring a militia to the Statehouse. Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain was called to mediate the dispute. A result was a change in Maine’s Constitution in 1880 to require a plurality of votes, rather than a majority.

Maine’s system of plurality elections is now challenged by proponents of ranked-choice voting, a method they say can restore civility and majority rule to Maine’s elections. Maine voters will decide if they agree in 2016. If they do, RCV will be used for all Maine elections, including governor, Congress and the Legislature.

In RCV, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority in the first round, the last place finisher is discarded, and the second-place votes are distributed to the remaining candidates in succeeding rounds until one achieves a majority.

The proponents of this system, many of whom are liberal activists and former supporters of failed gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, say it will restore civility in elections and force candidates to reach beyond their base to garner second-place votes. While many of the most recent governors have been elected without a majority, this campaign seems to come from the notion that Gov. Paul LePage’s first election could have turned out differently under ranked-choice voting.

RCV backers argue that it would enfranchise supporters of third-party or independent candidates, who can support their candidates without wasting their vote and helping their least preferred candidate win.

But hazards in this new system have been seen in other jurisdictions, some of which have repealed the system. And if there are problems in Maine elections, like the inability of independent voters to participate in choosing the major candidates for governor, there may be better solutions to look at.

One problem of RCV is that especially with lots of candidates, a winner can be chosen with a relatively small number of first-place votes. This was exactly what happened in the city of Oakland, California, in 2010 when Jean Quan, who received only 24 percent of votes in the first round, ended up winning the election because she was the second and third choice of many voters. In Burlington, Vermont, after the leader in the first round did not win an election, RCV was repealed.

The RCV campaign in Maine has been partly bankrolled by John Arnold, a former Enron executive and billionaire hedge fund manager from Texas who now runs The Action Now Initiative; it has given at least $20,000 to the RCV committee through another political action committee, The Chamberlain Project PAC. (Full disclosure: I gave $300 in 2014 when I was asked to help get the measure on the ballot.)

The RCV system could complicate recounts, especially in a statewide election. Even the hotly disputed recount in 2014 for a state Senate seat, which ultimately went to Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, was a painful process fraught with accusations of vote tampering before it was finally resolved.

If voters want to consider election reform, they should step back and consider changes that could enfranchise a larger number of voters. One change might be an open primary with a runoff election. Since a third of Maine voters are independent, and not able to vote in the party primaries, they can tune out the whole process and they’re left with the candidates who win the primaries, often from the party extremes.

This process would open primaries to all voters, not just members of the particular parties. If people want to radically change our election system, they should look at the big picture and consider some other reforms.

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

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  • Chris J.

    Well-written piece! One comment though.

    One problem of RCV is that especially with lots of candidates, a winner can be chosen with a relatively small number of first-place votes. This was exactly what happened in the city of Oakland, California, in 2010 when Jean Quan, who received only 24 percent of votes in the first round, ended up winning the election because she was the second and third choice of many voters.

    This isn’t so much a problem with RCV but rather shows it working. In the 2010 Oakland race, the second and third-place candidates were splitting the vote in the first round: Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan. When Kaplan was eliminated, their support combined to lift Quan from second place to first.

    The same thing can happen in a 2-election primary-runoff. The second-place finisher in a primary can end up winning the runoff once the other candidates (who can split the vote) are no longer in the running. In that situation, one wouldn’t say it’s a “problem” that the winner in the runoff can be different. It’s a good thing!

  • Christopher White

    First, let me say that I have NEVER belonged to ANY political party. [I admit I am considering joining the Democratic party (however briefly) to caucus for Sen Sanders.]
    Next, let me say I have advocated RCV (along with a range of other changes to election laws) for decades, long before the election of the current occupant of the Blaine House.
    No system is perfect, but RCV would vastly improve the plurality system, which in its current form suppresses alternatives to the Duopoly Parties, overly advantages incumbents, encourages negative campaigning, and helps suppress voting by those who feel ignored by establishment politicians.

    • Christopher White

      EXCEPT….The Fascist Party.

      Fascism is necessary to implement my point of view which is otherwise pure insanity. No rational person would accept my way of thinking so it must be forced upon others.

  • John E. Palmer

    Your proposed solution of open primaries doesn’t solve the problem that plagues Maine’s gubernatorial elections–namely that in 9 of the past 11 races, Maine has elected a governor without a majority, and in 5 of those, the winner earned less than 40% of the vote, including Democrat, Independent and GOP winners.

    Less than a majority in any election should cause a runoff. Ranked choice would allow Mainers to have that runoff instantly, without another trip to the polls. Open primaries do not provide for a majority solution.

  • This version of ranked choice voting may suffice in executive elections but does little or nothing to improve legislative and congressional elections. They would still be “winner-take-all” contests in single-member districts. That means only those who vote for a winning candidate would elect a “representative.” It would be instant runoff voting for a majority winner, not anything resembling fair and inclusive representation that many voting reform advocates want. Achieving that requires multi-winner elections and multi-member representation using some proportional voting method.

  • Christopher White

    I love fascism.