Bangor Daily News: Op-ed: "Why ranked choice voting will work for Maine"

Bangor Daily News

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During an election year we don’t hear much thoughtful analysis or constructive debate. But what if we could? What if there were ways to make political pandering useless, to make willing collaboration the clearest path to accomplishing goals for the greater good?

Compromise and moderation are core values of a functional political system that balances the interests of all parties and rewards politicians who engage in thoughtful policymaking and respectful negotiation. There is a way to encourage such behavior: ranked choice voting, or RCV.

With RCV, voters still vote for their favorite candidate. In addition, voters are given the option of ranking other candidates in order of preference. If there’s a majority winner, the counting is done. If not, the candidate with the least number of first choice votes is eliminated and second choice ballots are then tabulated. This continues until one candidate reaches a majority. It’s an instant run-off, without the expense.

In our current political climate, money and special interests hold parties and politicians hostage to ideology — and it isn’t working. To make government work again, to allow Maine’s businesses and people to thrive, we need to change the way we elect our leaders.

Today, in races with more than two candidates, a common occurrence in Maine, candidates can win elections with less than 40 percent of the vote. In these three-, four- and five-way races, the incentives for candidates to appeal to narrow ideological bases and to beat down their opponents are proving irresistible. This behavior exacerbates a dysfunctional political system.

It may help to drive funding for the major political parties, but it poisons the well of politics, drives down voter participation, makes finding common ground more difficult and makes governing nearly impossible.

Ranked choice voting does the very opposite. Because it allows voters to rank the candidates in order of preference, which gives them a greater voice in elections, it forces candidates to appeal to a wider swath of voters, which gives the winning candidates a broader base of majority support, and it elects leaders who are more willing to collaborate while governing.

With RCV we:

— Empower voters to vote for their favorite candidate, without resorting to “strategic voting.”

— Encourage candidates to speak to a broader audience with positive ideas.

— Make negative campaigning counterproductive.

— Elect leaders who understand how to work collaboratively.

Many agree Maine’s political climate today falls short of these aspirations.

When extreme partisans of either party — people who believe ideology should come before compromise — are in control, government policies change as swiftly as partisan power shifts. This makes it difficult for businesses, the creator of jobs, to plan ahead and grow.

From my time as a Republican state senator to my tenure as the CEO of Diversified Communications, I have watched our political system decline and reach an unprecedented level of dysfunction.

Over the last 40 years, the drift toward ideological purity has damaged the reputation of public service and the stability of our government. With each election, as power has swung back and forth between narrow fractions of the two major parties — yielding nine governors elected with less than 50 percent of the vote, five of whom were elected with less than 40 percent of the vote — I’ve watched the chaos in our state government grow and productivity decline.

RCV is not new. It is the most cost-effective and administratively efficient way to restore civility to our politics, ensure majority rule and elect candidates who are prepared to build the broad coalitions of support necessary to lead. It has been implemented seamlessly in a number of municipalities across the United States and at the federal level in countries across the world.

Portland, Maine, switched to a ranked choice voting system in 2011 to elect the mayor. Voters and candidates have since responded favorably to the system. The crowded 2011 election highlighted the system’s ability to encourage candidates to campaign in a more positive and civil manner.

The vast majority of Mainers don’t have a vested interest in prolonging the political polarization that has gripped our state. But they do have a vested interest in growing the state’s tax base and welcoming new and expanded business and employment opportunities. RCV is an important tool to help us get there.

We can change the way we vote. We can restore a more positive and civil relationship among Republicans, Democrats and independents. Ranked choice voting won’t solve everything, but it will be a giant step toward a better future.

Horace “Hoddy” A. Hildreth, Jr. is a former member of the Maine State Senate and the retired C.E.O. of Diversified Communications, which owns and operates WABI-TV in Bangor, Maine.

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