The Universal Notebook: When choices are rank, try ranked choice voting

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Question 5 on the Nov. 8 ballot will ask us, “Do you want to allow voters to rank their choices of candidates in elections for U.S. Senate, Congress, Governor, State Senate, and State Representative, and to have ballots counted at the state level in multiple rounds in which last-place candidates are eliminated until a candidate wins by majority?”

I voted early and I voted yes, but mostly just to see how it works in practice. Maine would be the first state in the nation to adopt ranked choice voting, which is only used at the municipal level in a few progressive cities in this country.

The RCV initiative is a reaction to the election and re-election of Gov. Paul LePage, one of the most unpopular governors in the country. Having failed to remove LePage by impeachment for abuse of power and having failed to have him declared mentally disabled, Mainers are so desperate not to be saddled with another petty tyrant that we are willing to consider a radical revision of our election laws.

As the League of Women Voters of Maine website explains, RCV, also known as instant runoff voting, works like this: “In the event that no candidate garners 50 percent plus one vote, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and voters who ranked that candidate first have their votes recast to their second choice candidate. This process is repeated until one candidate garners 50 percent plus one vote.”

The perceived benefits of RCV are that it replaces plurality rule with a semblance of majority rule, it might eliminate the spoiler effect, and it might instill a modicum of civility as candidates would not want to alienate all of their opponents’ voters, votes they are going to need on a second round count. I don’t, however, see RCV ending partisan gridlock.

The major drawback is that RCV can be confusing to understand. Supporters say it’s not, but it is. When RCV was first explained to me I did not realize that the last-place finisher gets dropped. I just thought everyone’s second-place choices got counted if no one had a majority in the first round. I still think that’s the way it should be. Dropping the last place finisher seems arbitrary.

What if in a three-way race the third-place finisher was everyone’s second choice and would have won in the second round? That actually could have happened in 2014, when independent Eliot Cutler came in third in the governor’s race, but I’m guessing he might have been the second choice of most voters.

RCV also faces a potential constitutional challenge, as the state Constitution currently stipulates that elections be won by “a plurality of all votes returned,” not a majority.

I’m guessing conservatives, already happy with the offensive LePage and his ilk, will oppose RCV, seeing it as a plot to disenfranchise them. On the other hand, progressives ought to be concerned that too many like-minded Democrat, Green, independent and other progressive candidates might cancel one another out unless their supporters all have the same second choice. Then how do you vote strategically?

See, I told you it’s not as simple as they say it is.

Mostly I’m concerned about unintended and unforeseen consequences. Maine enacted term limits in 1996 in reaction to perceived abuses of power by longtime Speaker of the House John Martin. Well, Rep. Martin is still in the state Legislature, as he has been since 1964, by virtue of alternately running for the House or Senate when he is termed out. Meanwhile, short-term legislators have to rely on bureaucrats and lobbyists, who have the institutional memory and much more power, to understand how things work in Augusta.

Still, I’m all for giving RCV a try. It’s not like our current system produces excellent results. If RCV turns out to be a mess, we dump it. Then maybe we can try open primaries, which is the way I would have preferred to go in the first place. Everyone runs in the primary. The top two vote-getters regardless of party go head-to-head in the general election. Could be two Ds, could be two Rs, or it could be none of the above.

Or maybe we could try approval voting, in which you get to vote for as many of the candidates in a race as you like. I, for example, would have voted for Democrat Mike Michaud and Cutler in 2014, but not LePage. Of course, most people would not have voted for LePage.

That’s why we’re voting on RCV.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.