Politics & Other Mistakes: Ranked-choice snake oil

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If ranked-choice voting were a drug, the federal government would be fining its manufacturer for making false claims.

For instance, its backers insist it produces majority winners, which ain’t necessarily so. Anyone who doesn’t vote for one of the top two finishers will find their ballot discarded, which means it doesn’t count in the final tally.

As with so many forms of quack medicine, advocates for this particular placebo manage to ignore this uncomfortable fact, and remain convinced of its efficacy regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Magical thinking is difficult to overcome with mere logic.

Unfortunately for the RCV sorcerers, their incantations and spells are notably ineffective in dealing with constitutional issues. The reality is that significant portions of the bill approved in referendum last year implementing ranked-choice voting for most Maine elections are unconstitutional. No amount of sleazy advertising (Cures Political Paralysis! Eliminates Negative Campaigning! Produces Majority Winners!) will change that. Nor will the waving of wands.

So, let’s deal with the real world.

In this rarely visited dimension, curing the ills that plague our system is not simple. Term limits did no good – and considerable harm. Public campaign financing has proved expensive – without producing any noticeable return on that investment. Yet the same hucksters who sold us those exotic potions now insist ranked-choice will somehow be different.

Let’s look at the record.

In Portland, the only place in the state with actual experience with this form of voting, the last two mayors have been chosen by ranked choice. In spite of claims that such a system would produce winners with real mandates, neither Michael Brennan nor Ethan Strimling benefited from broad public support. Brennan fizzled into insignificance, while Strimling has become isolated from all but his tiny cadre of supporters. Political infighting is rampant, and nasty attacks abound.

To be fair (sorta), there are other factors at play in Portland that have contributed to governmental dysfunction. But that’s often been the case in the state’s most populous municipality, and ranked choice did nothing to alter that situation. If anything, since its implementation, the ugliness has increased.

Nevertheless, advocates for RCV were infuriated last month when the Legislature decided to delay the effective date of that voting method until December 2021 to provide an opportunity to work out the legal problems with the measure approved by voters. Those difficulties fall in two areas. The Maine Constitution states that winners of races for governor and Legislature shall be chosen by pluralities. It also mandates that municipalities, not the state, conduct the ballot counting.

These little legalities aren’t surprises. The relevant sections of our fundamental law were pointed out to advocates during the campaign by Attorney General Janet Mills. But the ranked-choice rebels refused to acknowledge the problem. They claimed these piddling defects could easily be corrected with a bit of eye of newt and tongue of bat. Ranked choice could rise from the dead, much like disco and venereal diseases.

After the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued an advisory opinion clearly indicating the law wouldn’t stand up to a legal challenge, legislators tried to repeal it entirely (that failed because Democrats balked) and implement it partially for congressional and primary elections (Republicans wanted none of that). Rather than let the original, unconstitutional version of the law take effect, thereby throwing next year’s elections into disarray, a compromise was reached calling for a delay. But that deal came with one additional provision: If the serious issues with the bill could not be resolved by constitutional amendment before the new effective date, the whole measure was repealed.

Cue the outrage.

Now that Gov. Paul LePage has allowed that compromise to become law without his signature, the ranks of ranked-choicers have launched a people’s veto of the measure. To do that, they’ll have to collect over 61,000 signatures of registered voters in just 90 days. If they accomplish that feat by early February, the delay in implementation would be, uh, delayed. The original law would go into effect. Ranked choice would be used in next June’s primaries, even as voters were deciding whether to repeal it.

To win that election, supporters of RCV will have to convince the public that we need to institute a patently ineffective system of choosing our leaders. But they’ve managed to do that once already, and there’s no reason to think it would be all that difficult for them to succeed again.

Miracle cures are always an easy sell.

Tune in next week when leading physicians will explain how acute cognitive dissonance is caused by emailing me at aldiamon@herniahill.net.