Politics & Other Mistakes: When reform goes wrong

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Shawn Moody and Janet Mills notwithstanding, it appears Maine doesn’t have enough bad election outcomes. To get more, we’re being told, we need to expand ranked-choice voting.

Moody, an expert in repairing collision damage to vehicles and a clueless buffoon when it comes to governing, won the Republican nomination for governor without the need for ranked-choice because he received a majority of votes in the first round.

Mills, the current state attorney general and the latest in a tired line of Democratic political retreads, prevailed under the instant runoff system to grab her party’s gubernatorial nod, but she would have claimed victory without it, since she got the most votes in the initial tally.

So, it would be totally unfair of me to blame ranked-choice voting for these uninspiring nominees. But, as regular readers know, I’m nothing if not totally unfair.

Supporters of this complex and time-consuming method of holding elections repeatedly promised RCV would produce two benefits. It would assure us majority winners, and it would eliminate negative campaigning.

As this election demonstrated, they lied.

While Moody picked up his majority the old-fashioned way – by bamboozling voters with his “outsider” image – Mills’ alleged majority required fancy mathematical manipulations.

According to results released by the Office of the Secretary of State, after five other candidates were eliminated in the early rounds of RCV, Mills earned just over 54 percent of the votes, giving her a decisive win over Adam Cote, who got nearly 46 percent.

But the official figures don’t exactly add up. They say there were 132,250 votes cast in the Democratic primary, and Mills got 63,384 of them. According to my antique Radio Shack calculator, that comes to just shy of 48 percent of the vote. According to my limited recollection of basic arithmetic, 48 percent is less than a majority.

This seeming inconsistency can be explained by a quirk in the ranked-choice law. If you were foolish enough not to vote somewhere on your ballot for one of the top two finishers in a RCV election (even though you couldn’t possibly know in advance who they were going to be), your vote doesn’t count. It’s as if you didn’t bother going to the polls.

In addition, if you only liked one candidate and marked him or her as your first, second and third choice, that’s against the rules. Even though your intentions were obvious, your ballot got tossed.

In all, 15,000 voters were removed from the count because they didn’t vote for anyone (could it be they were confused by ranked-choice?) or had the audacity to express their wishes in ways that didn’t meet the exacting standards of the instant-runoff overlords. That’s more than 11 percent of the total – or it would have been if those votes had been tallied.

In the Democratic 2nd Congressional District primary, nearly 7,400 ballots were discarded for similar reasons. That’s a bit less than 15 percent of the total turnout. Jared Golden, the proclaimed majority winner with more than 54 percent of the ranked-choice vote, actually received about 46 percent of the real-world count.

Well, at least these elections were, as promised by ranked-choice proponents, conducted in a civil fashion – except for the negative campaigning and attack ads that showed up in spite of that promise.

A super-PAC supporting Mills ripped Cote because he used to be a Republican. GOP candidate Garrett Mason criticized another Republican contender, Mary Mayhew, because she used to be a Democrat, and Mason hit Moody because, until recently, he was an independent. GOP also-ran Ken Fredette slammed Mason for financing his campaign with public money. And Golden criticized his chief opponent, Lucas St. Clair, for not denouncing the “dark money” advertising produced on his behalf by a mysterious group that may or may not have been bankrolled by his wealthy mother.

As political mudslinging goes, that’s an average amount for a primary election, about what we might have expected if ranked-choice hadn’t been in effect.

Bottom line, the new system took longer to confirm the winners, cost more, disenfranchised a significant number of voters, didn’t improve the participants’ conduct and had no impact on the results. Yet voters approved continuing to use ranked-choice for federal and primary elections for the foreseeable future. And proponents of RCV say they’ll now push for an amendment to the state Constitution to allow it in general elections for governor and the Legislature.

Because this state doesn’t have nearly enough bad election outcomes.

Don’t let the facts get in the way of defending ranked-choice by emailing aldiamon@herniahill.net.