Ranked Choice Voting Back on in Maine and Promising for Other States

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February 5, 2018
Kevin Johnson

With the help of hundreds of chilly volunteers, and a last minute appearance from rock star John Fishman, the Committee for Ranked Choice gathered and submitted 80,000 signatures Friday to the Maine Secretary of State, and as a result a promising voting reform will be in use at a state-wide level for the first time in US history. The Maine primaries in June for Governor, State legislature, US House, and US Senate will run on ranked choice voting, the system that allows voters to support more than one candidate and to rank those votes in order of preference. This is good news for our democracy, because the voting problems that ranked choice can fix are rising rapidly, as a wave of grassroots energy undermines more traditional political organizing.

Our normal simple plurality voting system (which gives victory to the candidate with the most votes, whether or not he / she has the majority) works well in two-candidate races but runs into problems with crowded elections or races with an independent candidate to tip a close contest. With ranked choice, voters mark a ballot designed to show first, second, and third choices (or more), and counting proceeds in rounds (called instant runoff) in which the least supported candidate is eliminated at each round. By taking into account second and third preferences, ranked choice ensures, in nearly all cases, that the winner is voted for by the majority and is the most preferred candidate.

2018 is shaping up as a watershed election in terms of the total numbers of candidates running, the number of independents running, and the weakening of party control of the candidate selection process, all developments that will dramatize the need for ranked choice voting. New grassroots organizations on the Left, like Run for Something and Indivisible, along with the Tea Party on the Right, have created a huge surge of new candidates, often from untraditional backgrounds, who are making the 2018 elections among the most crowded in US history.

The more fragmentation in our parties, the more simple plurality voting will produce unrepresentative winners, angry voters, and disillusionment with democracy.

There will be 88 Congressional or Gubernatorial primaries with six or more candidates this year, 37 with eight or more, and most of those crowded primaries are in states or districts critical to political control of this country. For party leaders, an eight candidate primary represents a breakdown in the selection process the once held sway. Under simple plurality it also means a completely unpredictable race that could easily go to a fringe candidate out of step with the majority.

While independents and third parties have long championed ranked choice, the dominant parties have been lukewarm in the case of Democrats, and hostile in the case of Republicans. After the 2018 primaries, both could have a change of heart. This opening up of the candidate selection process to the untamable grassroots could make RCV a need-to-have for states and state party leadership across the US.

If so, they will have the intrepid volunteers from Maine to thank for making a first state-wide use of the system come to pass. In November 2016, Mainers voted for a ranked choice referendum to fix a pattern of unrepresentative elections dominated by concerns about the spoiler effect and voters having to choose between true preference and not helping the other side win. Disregarding the will of the majority, Maine legislators passed a delay and repeal bill last Fall, effectively killing ranked choice. In part they responded to a real hurdle - a state constitutional issue affecting 3 of the 10 election categories - but an alternative bill would have addressed that problem and preserved RCV.

The coalition of civic groups and former elected officials (from both parties) that first put ranked choice on the ballot countered with a petition for a peoples veto of the delay-and-repeal bill. With the signatures submitted Friday, a second referendum is set for June, and ranked choice is reestablished as the system in use for those same elections. Leading democracy scholar Larry Diamond has called this battle over ranked choice in Maine the ground zero of election reform in the US.

The Maine primaries for governor will feature eight candidates for the Democratic nominee and five for the Republican, and six Dems are fighting it out in Maines second congressional district primary. Unlike other states, none of these primaries will be won with just 30 or 40 percent of the vote, and there will be no spoiler effect to keep citizens from voting their true preferences.

If the experience of Maine voters follows the pattern in the dozen cities so far using ranked choice, these elections will not just have more representative results, they will also have less negative campaigns. Because candidates need to heed the preferences of a larger electorate beyond their core supporters, ranked choice reduces the returns to negative campaigning and promotes more collaborative approaches and people.

Ranked choice has long been supported by good governance organizations; recently, Harvard competitiveness guru Michael Porter highlighted ranked choice as a key part of the solution to the  failing politics industry in America. Questions have been raised about whether the additional complexity of ranked choice would reduce turnout, but results to date do not bear that out. The main knock is probably that RCV ballots makes vote auditing more difficult.

The simple plurality system is currently the norm in this country not because its in the Constitution (which leaves these issues to the states) or endorsed by the Founders; its simply all that the available technology could manage when we started voting back in the 1600s. We have the technology now for a better system, and given the crisis of legitimacy confronting our democracy, we ought to use it.

The benefits of ranked choice voting -- promoting collaborative, representative candidates and decreasing the returns to negative campaigning - are becoming increasingly needed as partisanship intensifies and our political system loses all centralized control. The more our system fragments, the more simple plurality voting will produce unrepresentative winners, angry voters, and disillusionment with democracy.