Column: Ranked-choice voting would be Maine’s smart choice

Portland Press Herald

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A question for Maine voters as we head into the homestretch of Election 2016:

Are you really as dimwitted as some people seem to think you are?

No, this is not a column about Donald Trump. Or, for that matter, Gov. Paul LePage.

This is about ranked-choice voting. A new way of doing statewide elections that, despite those who think it exceeds most Mainers’ intellectual capacity, ain’t exactly rocket science.

“It really is just a runoff system,” said Dick Woodbury, chairman of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting. “We’re doing exactly what a runoff would do – it’s just that we’re doing it in a really cost-efficient way. Without delaying the outcome, without all the more negative campaigning, without having to constantly reopen the polls.”

For those who’ve yet to take a close look at the ballot for the Nov. 8 election, welcome to Question 5: “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?”

In a recent Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, 48 percent of likely voters surveyed said they support the new voting system.

At the same time, 29 percent said they will vote against it and 23 percent said they were still undecided.

Meaning it’s too soon for pro-Question 5 folks like Woodbury to start celebrating, but it’s entirely possible that Maine soon may lead the nation out of the political gutter and back toward, dare we say, a new era of electoral consensus.

Vocal opponents – only a handful have surfaced so far – say that first and foremost, ranked-choice voting is too complex, with too many moving parts for the typical Mainer to comprehend.

Seriously?

Picture a ballot with, say four candidates running for governor. Next to each are ovals marked “1st choice,” “2nd choice,” “3rd choice” and “4th choice.”

Under the ranked-choice system, you fill in the ovals accordingly – as many or few as you like – and then turn in your ballot just like you always have.

Once the polls close, the ballots are counted. If someone emerges with 50-percent-plus-one of the vote, strike up the music and drop the balloons. It’s over.

But if none of the four candidates receives a majority vote, the ranked-choice system kicks in.

How so?

First, the last-place finisher is knocked out of contention. At the same time, the second-choice selections on that candidate’s ballots are added respectively to the totals for the remaining candidates.

If that pushes one of the remaining candidates above 50 percent, it’s balloon time.

If not, the process is repeated until someone achieves a majority.

Bottom line, the winner reflects the wishes of the broader electorate, not just his or her hard-core political base.

And how might that nudge us closer to, as the Founding Fathers once put it, “a more perfect union”?

No more carping for the next two, four or six years about how the majority of Maine has been hijacked by a minority of voters.

No more campaign strategies based solely on dividing and conquering – and to hell with the 60 percent or more of voters who crave a less negative, more moderate message.

No more “spoiler” candidates who change the course of history with their minuscule share of the vote.

No more “strategic voting” by those who now feel forced to abandon their true favorite and use their ballot as a defensive weapon against the candidate they fear the most.

And, perhaps most important, better governance by elected officials who know that their re-election will hinge not on how much red meat they toss to their most rabid supporters, but on how well they represent their entire constituency.

Controversial? You bet – especially to those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo.

Woodbury divides the opposition into two camps – those who know they couldn’t come close to a majority under any voting scenario, and those “political operatives” who have turned the current mess into a self-serving science.

“They know how to do negative advertising, they know how to target, they know how to take data and help people succeed,” he said. “They know how to manipulate the system, and they’re wary of changing it.”

And so they warn that ranked-choice voting is “too complicated.” Ask yourself again, fellow voter, are you really as thick between the ears as the political elite make you out to be?

Recently, Woodbury tried the ranked-choice concept out at his 11-year-old nephew’s birthday party. He listed various menu items – hot dog, hamburger, pickles  – on the “ballot” before handing it over to his nephew with no instructions whatsoever on how to conduct the “election.”

“He explained it perfectly,” Woodbury recalled with a proud-uncle smile.

There are, to be sure, potential hurdles to consider here.

Attorney General Janet Mills opined this year that ranked-choice voting might run afoul of the Maine Constitution.

Fine. If the courts agree with Mills, there’s plenty of time to pass a constitutional amendment before ranked-choice voting kicks in in 2018.

Critics have said ranked-choice voting will push the state’s cost for an election from just under $250,000 to just over $900,000.

Question: If the current administration can blow almost half a million bucks on a Medicaid “study” that turned out to be plagiarized, why can’t Maine invest roughly the same amount in an election system that might actually prevent such mismanagement in the first place?

But enough naysaying. In his travels around the state promoting Question 5, Woodbury has been struck by how open so many Mainers are to a new way of exercising our democracy.

“I’ve never seen a referendum campaign that has drawn support from across the political spectrum to the degree that this one has,” he noted.

Meaning?

“A lot of people get the problem,” Woodbury said. “An awful lot of thoughtful people have come to the conclusion that we really do need a system that better addresses that now-very-common phenomenon of multi-candidate races.”

In other words, a choice more people can live with.

It’s that simple.

By Bill Nemitz

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