Opinion: A precious window of hope for our political future

Bangor Daily News

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In the 2018 election for governor, we might expect six or eight Democratic Party candidates, six or eight Republican Party candidates, a Green Party candidate, a Libertarian Party candidate, and three or four independents.

That’s a wonderful thing. Wonderful that we’ll have an engaged group of citizens stepping up to the best of America’s democracy by running for public office. Wonderful that they will bring with them a diversity of ideas, vision, experience and talents.

But how do we whittle down from these 10, 15 or 20 candidates to elect someone who best represents the views, ideals and hopes of Maine voters most broadly? Someone who is most likely to bring us together, rather than divide us?

Ranked-choice voting is by far the most sensible way to filter through these multicandidate dynamics, particularly when compared with the way we select our leaders now. Which is why the Bangor Daily News Oct. 19 editorial on Question 5 is so baffling.

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I do not want a major party candidate to be able to win their party primary with 20 percent or 25 percent of the vote, which is perfectly plausible — even likely — in an eight-candidate race. No, I want the winning candidate to have shown their appeal to a true majority of the party’s voters. Put differently, I want it harder for an extremist minority of voters to take control.

The same principle applies to the general election. I do not want the general election to be won by a minority of votes, as it has been in nine of the last 11 gubernatorial elections. Nor do I want to worry about vote splitting, spoiler effects and strategic voting. I want to express my full opinion about the candidates, and I want my vote to count. That’s why the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting chose “more voice” as their campaign slogan.

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, narrows the field one-by-one by eliminating candidates with the fewest votes in each run-off round, until a candidate has a majority. The result is a winner who is broadly representative of what the most people want in their leader.

One of the BDN’s primary concerns seems to be that voters will find ranked-choice voting too complicated. Really? My favorite ice cream is mocha chip, but I have no trouble making an alternative choice. The same is true in politics, only compounded, because of its importance — its monumental importance.

Look, I’ll take whatever ice cream flavor you’ve got, but if we want good governance in Maine and in America, how people are elected really matters.

Ranking candidates is not complicated at all. This initiative is about strengthening the voter’s voice in the process. It’s about giving people more say in the final outcome. Or as former Republican state Sen. Peter Mills describes it, ranked-choice voting is about “figuring out what voters really want.”

The BDN editorial notes that “the majority of legislative races include only two candidates.” So why bother? Is that the point they’re trying to make? I’ll tell you why. First, because a lot of gubernatorial races don’t have just two candidates. Including primaries, there were 15 candidates for governor in 1994, eight candidates in 1998, five candidates in 2002, eight candidates in 2006 and 15 candidates in 2010.

The 2014 election was an anomaly with just three candidates, but even in that race, many felt that “spoiler effects” and “strategic voting” were dominating aspects of the election’s multicandidate dynamics.

And what about future legislative races? Does the BDN really expect multicandidate legislative races to be rare in Maine in 2018 and beyond? With a Republican Party fractured between pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions? With a newly certified and reenergized Libertarian Party in the state? With one of the country’s most active Green Parties? And with widening disaffection and disenrollment from the major political parties generally?

Issues of vote splitting and minority winners are fundamental to Question 5. And if the reform also nudges the system toward greater civility, collaborative engagement and productive governance — which experience in other places suggests that it will — what would be bad about that?

There’s a reason that Stanford Professor Larry Diamond said in an Oct. 6 BDN column that of all the elections happening all over the entire United States this year, Maine’s Question 5 is the second most important anywhere. It’s because our political system is broken. Seriously broken. And Question 5 is a precious window of hope for making things better. Please vote yes on 5.

Dick Woodbury is an economist and served for 10 years in the Maine Legislature as an independent. He is chair of the Committee on Ranked Choice Voting.

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