Column: The Center Road: "Democracy's past, present, future"

Lakes Region Weekly

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I’ve been thinking a bit about democracy lately.

On Monday, May 25, we set aside a day to reflect upon, and honor, those in uniform who have given their lives for our country. Patriots’ Day, VE Day, Armed Forces Day, and the anniversary of D-Day all occur at this time of year.

On Tuesday, June 9, many towns in Maine will hold elections. If citizens are going to pay tribute to the patriots of the past, what better way than to exercise the rights for which they fought?

When considering our civic rights and responsibilities of today, it is instructive to review history. The ancient Greeks gave us the word “democracy,” and the citizens of Athens experimented with it for two centuries. In a city nearly the size of Portland, a public assembly was held 40 times a year, with a quorum consisting of 6,000 citizens in attendance. They listened to debates, elected judges and juries, and voted on decrees by show of hands.

If you think that dropping by your polling place for 15 minutes a year is a burden, consider attending a two-hour meeting nearly every week.

As a bonus, the Athenians would vote once a year on an “ostracism.” If passed, the assembly would take nominations and exile the biggest tyrant or troublemaker from the town. After 10 years, that person could return and reclaim their property, presumably having cooled off by then.

Our nation’s founders studied history and considered a representative democracy (“republic”) to be a more deliberate system than direct democracy. After all, an entire country is a complicated and diverse entity compared to a single city like Athens. Although the first U.S. citizens consisted of only the free, male property holders, I still feel very grateful for the founders’ work.

One of the great benefits of our Constitution and laws is that they allow for change. Improvements and adjustments come slowly, yes, but inexorably.

Among the changes being proposed is one that is very relevant to this column’s consideration of democracy. The founders did not initially plan for a two-party system. Election law has evolved to favor the presentation of candidates from two political parties, as if citizens cannot be trusted to choose from a wider range of options.

In Maine, a plurality is sufficient to win an election, even though independent candidates are common and the parties themselves produce many who are qualified. Regardless of the number of names on the ballot, the top vote-getter wins, even if that is not a majority.

Nine of the last eleven elections for governor in Maine have resulted in less than majority voter support for the winner.

In local elections, some of the worst evils of this system can be avoided. In my own runs for office, I refused all campaign contributions, funding them myself. I also treated my opponents with respect, and did not use negative language in my speech and advertising. I focused instead on why the voters should choose me.

Unfortunately, this is impractical in state elections, which are heavily funded and draw outside attention by those intent on extending their power and influence.

The solution is a runoff election. Runoffs, which introduce more balance, are not complicated. Everyone knows how they work. If your favorite person running gets the fewest votes and is removed from the list, who would be your second choice? When someone eventually gets most of the vote, we know that a majority of those expressing their choices actually supported the winner, even if they were the second choice of some.

Runoff elections are expensive, which is why Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) has been proposed. This is the system used in Ireland and Australia, as well as several cities and counties in the United States. You may have seen folks asking if you want to sign a petition to put it on a referendum ballot for Maine state races.

RCV offers to voters an option of registering their “second choice” in addition to voting for their favorite. (In fact, you can put the whole list of candidates in order from first to last if you choose.)

People try to make this proposal sound complicated, but it isn’t. It works just like a runoff election without the need to come back on another day.

This seems like democracy to me. I also believe that with Ranked Choice Voting more people will offer themselves as candidates who have fewer political affiliations and attitudes. I would love to see more “ordinary citizens” on the ballot from which to choose.

Another benefit is that candidates may actually be nicer to each other! If the candidates realize that they must also appeal to people for whom they would like to get their “second choice” vote, they might not be quite so mean.

Who would be against having more choices? Well, political party bosses and major donors who want to orchestrate the party selection process will have the most to lose. Also, some people will oppose the measure just because “their guy” happened to win an election without a majority, forgetting that it may turn out to be “the other guy” next time.

The winners will be all of us who believe in more democracy.

Mark D. Grover lives in Gray and is a former elected official, but please don’t hold it against him. Your comments may be sent either to the Lakes Region Weekly, or to feedback@markdgrover.com.

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