Let’s suppose you’re one of those voter-suppression fanatics, looking for creative ways to stop people you don’t like from casting ballots in Maine.
You could try requiring photo identification, but anybody can buy a decent fake ID on the internet, so that might not work. Fingerprint checks or retinal scans? That would require expensive equipment at every polling place, and might slow down the process so much that people you want to vote would grow discouraged and go home. DNA tests? I don’t see how that would help, except maybe settling the question of whether Elizabeth Warren is Native American.
Fortunately, there’s a simpler way to dispose of fringy types, who show up on Election Day intent on voting for points of view that differ radically from your own.
It’s called ranked-choice voting.
Here’s how it works. Five people are running for a particular municipal office. You support Candidate A, an upstanding citizen who agrees with you on every issue. You’ve got your doubts about Candidate B, who has shown flashes of independent thought, but is generally reliable on the stuff you care about most. Candidates C, D and E are extremists, which is to say they hold views contrary to your own.
There are 100 people eligible to vote in your town. You could waste a lot of time trying to make it difficult for supporters of C, D and E to register or cast ballots. But why bother? With ranked-choice, there’s a good chance their votes won’t count at all.
How is that possible in a democracy where everyone’s ballot is supposed to be equal? Here’s how:
Once the polls close, the vote counters add up the number of first-choice selections for each candidate. Candidate A got 39 votes. Candidate B picked up 26. Candidate C received 15. Candidate D managed 11. And Candidate E won just 9. Nobody got a majority of the 100 ballots cast, which would be 51 votes. So, ranked-choice kicks in.
In the second round, Candidate E’s support is redistributed to the second choices on those ballots. Candidate A gets one additional vote, for a total of 40. Candidate B receives two votes to rise to 28. Candidate C gets one and is now at 16. Candidate D also earns one to reach 12. But the remaining four voters, obvious weirdos, didn’t make a second selection. Under the law, their ballots are discarded. It’s as if they never existed.
That means the total number of votes is now 96, and the majority required for victory is reduced from 51 to 49.
Next round. Candidate D’s votes are reallocated. Two go to Candidate A (now at 42), two to Candidate B (up to 30) and three to Candidate C (totaling 19). Five others either didn’t list a second choice or put Candidate E (who’s no longer in contention) in that slot. More ballots get dumped.
Ninety-one ballots are still in play. All it takes to win is 46.
Candidate C now gets the ax. One more for Candidate A (43) and 12 for Candidate B (42). Another six are tossed in the trash. With just 85 votes still in play, Candidate A has a majority.
Well, not a majority of all the ballots cast. Candidate A is still eight votes shy of that. But under ranked-choice, “all the ballots cast” is an antiquated concept. What counts is “all the ballots that weren’t thrown out for having the unmitigated gall to lend their support to oddballs and freaks who finished out of the running.”
What’s even better is that, without having to resort to any of the usual attempts at suppressing turnout, 15 deviant voters have been disenfranchised. No purging of the lists. No closing polling places in areas thought to shelter opposing views. No poll watchers challenging the ballots of anyone who looks a little off-color. Everyone believes they voted, even if they really didn’t.
If you think this scenario is unlikely, think again. In 2011, Michael Brennan was elected mayor of Portland under the ranked-choice system with an official tally of 56 percent of the vote. In reality, Brennan got less than 46 percent of the total vote, because about 3,500 ballots were tossed out for their failure to be marked in support of either of the top two finishers.
Ranked-choice will be used in the June primaries. If you’re planning to participate, better back the front-runner or the closest challenger with at least one of your choices. Otherwise, you might not really be voting.
Endorsements for poor Candidate E can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.