Article: Getting to know ranked choice voting

The Times Record

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On Thursday, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting held an “appetizer election” in Bath to educate voters about ranked choice voting.

“This is a fun way to demonstrate how ranked choice voting works,” said campaign manager Kyle Bailey in a press release. “We rank choices every day of our lives. Ranking candidates for public office is no different.”

Mainers will be able to vote on ranked choice voting, which is alternatively described as an instant runoff election, in November, where it will be one of five referendum questions on the ballot.

To demonstrate the principles of ranked choice votings, attendees of an event at Solo Bistro in Bath were able to taste three appetizers and vote for the best one using ranked choice voting. Each potential voter was given a ballot with three choices: fries, brussels sprouts and mussels. The voters sampled each of the three appetizers and ranked them by taste.

When the votes were finally tallied, brussels sprouts won by a clear majority, with 83 percent of the vote. Having achieved a majority, Bailey declared brussels sprouts the winner. But, he explained, under ranked choice voting, the results could have been much different if brussels sprouts did not win a majority.

For instance, imagine that brussels sprouts hadn’t been such a clear favorite. If none of the three appetizers won a majority of votes, then the appetizer that came in last would be eliminated. The election clerks would then look at the ballots that had been eliminated and allocate them to the appetizer that had been their second choice, ensuring that one appetizer got more than 50 percent of the vote.

Replace appetizers with actual candidates for office and you get ranked choice voting. If Question 5 passes, ranked choice voting would be used to elect Maine’s U.S. senators, representatives, state legislators, and the governor in any race with more than two candidates.

Pia Neilson, owner of Solo Bistro, said she supports Question 5 because “it makes it possible for more than just two candidates to be on the ballot, and for your vote to count no matter who you vote for.”

According to Neilson, whose husband Will is running for the Maine House, ranked choice voting prevents candidates from playing only to a narrow base of support. Instead, candidates need to ensure that they are either the first or second choice of a majority of Mainers.

“It makes sure that you need more than 50 percent of the vote to win,” she explained. “So the winner represents more than a small group of people.”

Discussion on Thursday night often turned to the gubernatorial election of 2010, when Gov. Paul LePage was voted into the office with only 38 percent of the vote, while independent Eliot Cutler and Democrat Libby Mitchell split most of the remaining vote.

“The gubernatorial election we had two elections ago is case and point as to why you need to have ranked voting, and prevent people who don’t get a majority from becoming the winner of any number of elections,” said Martha Hulbert of Woolwich. “I think the example has been made as to why we need this.

“In the Cutler election, the system was gamed,” she said. “So I think it’s going to be more fair and even (to implement ranked choice voting).”

But according to Bailey, the problem cuts both ways. Referencing the “61 percent” bumper stickers that arose after LePage’s 2010 victory to represent that majority of voters who did not vote for the governor, Bailey said, “the attempts to de-legitimize those winners prevent them from having a mandate to govern.”

With ranked choice voting, he noted, winners have to cobble together a majority of votes by being a combination of voters’ first, second, third or more choice.

In a year in which both major party presidential candidates have historically poor favorability ratings, ranked choice voting may have added appeal among those who want to vote third party but fear the consequences of not voting strategically. While Question 5 would not impact how Mainers vote for president, the 2016 election highlights Americans split feelings about voting their conscious and voting pragmatically.

“I’m not 100 percent sold, but I think it’s much better than our two-party system,” said Cindy Compton of Georgetown.

Nathan Strout

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