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.

  • Just Sayin’

    I think you’re a bit confused here, where you say:

    “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.”

    What you’ve just described is the CURRENT system, not ranked choice voting. The whole point of ranked choice voting is that if your first choice is eliminated, your vote passes down to your second choice, or third, etc. In the end, your vote counts towards one of the two contenders in the end one way or another, unless of course you don’t fill out a full ranking on your ballot form.

    The whole point of RCV is that your vote will count in the final election regardless, and it frees everyone to vote with their heart without the risk of ‘throwing their vote away’ on an unpopular candidate.

    • Ted Markow

      I’m not sure Al is confused, but he is selling papers.

      “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” — Upton Sinclair

  • Chew H Bird

    We would be far better off if people who are independents were simply provided a full slate of candidates, from any party, and allowed to vote their choice in primary elections. Such a concept would help keep Democrats and Republicans honest, allow independents to have a voice, and eliminate the perceived need for ranked choice voting.

    • Just Sayin’

      While I appreciate the thought, I have to disagree with this approach.

      If we did this and effectively made Independents a third party, we’d find their chosen candidate would be likely to split either the left or the right vote, whichever side they leaned towards that election year. Maine has had far too long of suffering from the results of split votes that ultimately tanked the both contenders on one side of the race and carried the state in an arguably less popular direction. We don’t need more of those kind of divisive elections.

      It also doesn’t address the power of the media and establishment to promote two frontrunners and encourage the feeling that a vote for anyone but those two is a vote that’s thrown away on an unwinnable cause.

      RCV eliminates the ‘unwinnable cause’ argument and allows everyone to vote their conscience and still have their vote fully count in the final tallies. I think that’s a goal we shouldn’t let slip away.

      • Chew H Bird

        Since Independents make up the single largest voter population in Maine, and because major party primaries exclude independents, the parties might nominate candidates the people want? I’m just a bit out of the box and looking for feedback.

        It seems to me with a two party system we limit ourselves in many ways to “party candidates” and while Maine has had some very successful independent Governors I would like to see some integrity and honesty injected into the political process. Perhaps allowing independents to vote in primaries might be a way to do that and reduce the extreme perspectives from which we currently suffer?

        • Just Sayin’

          As an Independent, I completely agree it would be nice to have more of a voice in the primary process. Reading what you have to say here I wonder if I misunderstood your meaning at first.

          Are you suggesting that Independents get their own primary process, and can invite candidates from either side to run within it and effectively form a third party with their own candidate? Or are you suggesting that Independents be allowed to vote in both the Republican and Democratic primaries and get a voice as to who they select?

          • Chew H Bird

            My thought is that Democrats vote in the Democratic Primary, Republicans vote in the Republican Primary, and Independents be provided a ballot with all candidates so they can vote for any candidate they choose, in any party. This is in the primary process only. Rather than create a third party, I simply want independents to have the ability to contribute to the primary process and vote, (independent of any party affiliation), for the candidates they choose.

            I like to think this might help keep both parties “honest”, encourage the parties to have platforms that better help the people, reduce extreme positions, and garner more support for the nominated candidates by including more people in the process.

            Probably this is a pipe dream, but I like to think that most of us want what is best for Maine over what is best for the party position.

          • Just Sayin’

            Okay, now that I have the correct picture here, I’m in full support of open primaries as you suggest. I think you’re absolutely right in that this would reduce extreme positions and ensure that candidates spend more time addressing issues that affect the greatest numbers of citizens, and that would be an excellent step forward.

            I don’t think that this would be a complete solution, but it would be a step in the right direction and ultimately would be paired wonderfully with other parts of the answer, like RCV and strict public campaign finance reform to equalize spending and take private money out of the election process.

  • JackStrawWichita

    Ranked choice voting had nothing to do with Strimling being elected, he was over 50% after the first count so it didn’t kick in.