Portland Press Herald
Maine voters have come to expect a wide range of choices in our gubernatorial elections. Over the last 40 years, every governor’s race but one has had at least one independent or third-party candidate in addition to the Republican and Democratic nominees. Adding more voices to the electoral mix is a plus for democracy, but, paradoxically, it sometimes can lead to less-than-democratic results.
Splitting the vote more than two ways increases the likelihood the victor will have a plurality rather than a majority of the popular vote. Our four most recent governors have all been victorious at least once with less than 40 percent of the vote. Independent Angus King is the only Blaine House aspirant since 1970 who managed to win a majority in a race with more than two candidates.
In multiple-candidate races, voters often feel pressured to vote “tactically,” abandoning their favorite candidate to prevent their least favorite from prevailing. Some respond to this dilemma by not voting at all. If elections are intended to allow us to make choices and express preferences, our system for choosing governors is serving us badly.
A standard approach to protecting the principle of majority rule is to hold elections in two stages. If no candidate takes a majority in the first round, the top two finishers then go head to head in a runoff.
But runoffs are expensive, essentially doubling the cost of an election. Another round of voting requires more candidate fundraising and more spending on advertising (most of it negative), benefiting no one except the television stations.
Moreover, voter turnout almost always declines significantly in a runoff. Any system that actually discourages citizens from voting should be a nonstarter.
In Maine and elsewhere, municipalities have addressed these issues with a process that protects majority rule without requiring a runoff election. Under ranked-choice voting, voters select their preferred candidate in the usual way, but then have the option of listing their next choices in order of preference; the size of the field determines the number of ranked choices available to each voter.
If no candidate collects a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place finisher is then eliminated and his or her second-choice votes are reassigned among the other candidates. This process is repeated until just two candidates remain, leaving a simple head-to-head vote count, just as would occur in a traditional runoff, but without the cost and delay of reopening the polls.
Ranked-choice voting has been glitch-free wherever it has been used, posing no problems for either human or mechanical vote-counters.
Portland used ranked-choice voting in its first popular mayoral election in 2011. In a field of 15 candidates, Mike Brennan was in front after the first count, but with only 27 percent of the vote. After successive reassignments of ranked-choice votes, Brennan’s final total rose to about 55 percent.
While in this instance the ranked-choice voting outcome was the same as it would have been in a traditional plurality election, twice as many Portlanders voted for their new mayor (albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm) than would have been the case otherwise.
Ranked-choice voting helps strengthen democracy in two ways. It encourages more participation and promotes a greater sense of power among voters. As well, it increases accountability among elected officials, who must appeal and then respond to a larger number of constituents.
Some skeptics see a hidden agenda behind ranked-choice voting, suspecting that it would give one party an advantage over the other, or empower independents at the expense of the two major parties.
Lacking reliable data on voters’ second choices in past elections, it takes some educated guesses to figure out how ranked-choice voting might have affected those races. While it appears that ranked-choice voting might have given us a couple of different governors than the ones who were elected, it is hard to discern any built-in advantage or disadvantage for either Republican, Democratic or independent candidates. Ranked-choice voting is as neutral a reform as one is likely to find.
The Legislature will very likely be taking up the issue during this session. A citizens initiative campaign is seeking to put a proposal on the ballot in November 2016 to implement ranked-choice voting. By supporting the ranked-choice voting campaign, Mainers have an opportunity to cast their votes for a more representative and rational state government.
Richard Maiman, Professor Emeritus of Political Science