This post is part of Polyarchy , an independent blog produced by the political reform program at New America , a Washington think tank devoted to developing new ideas and new voices.
Some good news came out of Maine last week. Supporters of ranked-choice voting delivered more than 80,000 signatures on behalf of a statewide referendum, well over the 61,123 they needed to get the measure on the ballot. That means that Maine residents will vote in June on whether they want ranked-choice voting.
If news of a state referendum on ranked-choice voting in Maine sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Maine residents already did this once before, in November 2016.
If Maine implements ranked-choice voting, over the objection of threatened political incumbents, it could set an important precedent for the nation, building momentum for a much-needed reform to our broken electoral system. That makes the June Maine vote the second most important election of 2018.
The saga of ranked-choice voting in Maine
Back in November 2016, I cheered when Maine voters passed a referendum to make the Pine Tree State the first in the nation to enact a system of ranked-choice voting for all state and federal elections. On an otherwise bleak night, it was a rare bright spot.
Maine Republicans, however, didn’t see it the same way. After all, their Republican governor, Paul LePage, had twice been elected without a majority of statewide votes, in plurality-winner elections in which an independent candidate ran alongside a Democratic and a Republican. State Republicans feared that ranked-choice voting would hurt them.
So they appealed to the Maine Supreme Court, which issued a controversial advisory opinion saying that ranked-choice voting violated the state constitution for statewide general elections but was okay for state primary and all federal elections. (The case rested on how to interpret the provision in the state constitution saying that state general elections would be decided by “a plurality of all votes.”)
Still dissatisfied, state Republicans proposed delaying even the partial implementation until 2021. They passed that law in late October 2017, with the help of a few Democrats. The legislation also said that if ranked-choice voting supporters couldn’t amend the state constitution to unequivocally allow for ranked-choice voting by then (a very high bar), the ranked-choice referendum would be fully repealed in 2022.
But what Maine’s state constitution taketh away, it may also giveth back. Maine has an unusual provision — “the people’s veto” — which allows citizens who are unhappy with an enacted state law to put that law up for a statewide vote. If the people reject it, the law is repealed. Mainers have only held 30 such votes since 1910, and never before have they voted on a law in which the state legislature repealed a statewide referendum. But they will in June.
In the initial campaign, Maine residents responded to the straightforward “more choices, more voices” appeal of ranked-choice voting. While ranked-choice voting stands strongly on its merits (more shortly), the fact that Maine’s elected leaders have defied the will of the public adds an extra dimension to the issue. This is now the reform that politicians tried to stop. Like trying to ban a book, it only gives it more appeal.
The case for ranked-choice voting
Before we dive into the case for ranked-choice voting, a brief explanatory paragraph: Under current plurality-winner electoral rules in Maine and throughout the nation (with few exceptions), voters can select only one candidate in any given election. Under ranked-choice voting, voters would be able to rank multiple candidates in order of preference.
Ranked-choice voting works through a multi-round, instant-runoff mechanism. In the first round, voters’ first choices are all tallied. If one candidate has a majority, that’s it — she is the winner. But if nobody has a majority, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Votes that were cast for the eliminated candidate instantly go to those voters’ second choice. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority of votes and is declared the winner.
The single-vote, single-district, winner-take-all approach to elections makes the United States a global outlier, and makes us one of the only democracies to effectively have only two parties.
But a two-party system is inadequate to represent the diversity of public opinion. As a result, a lot of voters feel neither party represents them, even if they tend to vote one way or another. Note, for example, that the share of voters identifying as independents hit a record high (tie) of 46 percent in December 2017. The share of voters saying a third party is needed (because Republican and Democratic parties do not do an adequate job of representing the American people) hit a record high of 61 percent in Gallup’s most recent polling on the question.
The most obvious benefit of ranked-choice voting is that voters can choose the candidate they most want to elect without having to worry so much about the “spoiler effect.” Were Maine to move to a ranked-choice voting system, independents and third-party candidates could run without being spoilers, giving voters more choices and making for a more vibrant political debate.
If this happens, it would improve representation, even if the two major parties continue to win. In an election with only two choices, Democrat and Republican, voters can only send a very weak signal. But in an election with more candidates, even if it winds up electing a Democrat or a Republican, voters can send stronger signals. Winning candidates will know where their support came from and will be more responsive as a result.
Imagine an election of 100 voters in which the first choice round of voting goes: Democrat 35, Republican 30, Libertarian 25, and Working Families Party 10. If 21 of the Libertarians ranked the Republican second, these 21 votes would go to the Republican in the instant runoff, and the Republican would get a winning 51 votes, even if all 10 of the Working Families’ votes went to the Democrat.
The Republican would know that she wouldn’t have been elected without the Libertarian’s support. But the Democrats would also know that they have a little support among Libertarians, and if they could do a little better in getting more second-choice support among Libertarians, maybe they’d win next time. This would strengthen the power of Libertarians.
Another argument for ranked-choice voting is that it generally improves civility of campaigning. Voters in cities with ranked-choice voting report that campaigns became less negative after ranked-choice systems went into place.
Think about it: The single-vote, winner-take-all, zero-sum nature of our current elections encourages candidates to tear each other apart, since voters can only choose one candidate. But if candidates start competing to be voters’ second and third choices, they have incentives to play more nicely with each other so as to not alienate potential supporters. You can imagine candidates saying, “Vote for me, but also pick this person second.” Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges explains this well in this video clip talking about her 2013 election.
A third benefit of ranked-choice voting is that it would likely improve turnout. As more candidates and parties enter the race, it increases the chances that individual voters not only find a candidate that appeals to them, but also see their vote as likely to matter. Additionally, more candidates and parties mean more candidates and parties working to engage voters.
Right now, far too many elections are held in districts that are safe for one party or the other, where votes stand no chance of mattering and parties don’t bother to invest. Ranked-choice voting has the potential to make many more elections competitive, which would likely increase voter turnout. Notably, cities that use ranked-choice voting have improved turnout.
Australia has used ranked-choice voting for a century now of thriving democracy. So have a few other countries and many US cities. So it’s not like this is some crazy system that has never been tried before. It has been tried. And it works quite well.
As Maine goes…
After the November midterm elections, I’d place the June Maine referendum on ranked-choice voting as the second most important election for 2018. That’s because if ranked-choice voting succeeds in Maine, we’ll get a real demonstration of how it can work at the state level. So far, all ranked-choice voting elections have been at the city level, and while it’s generally worked well there, almost all major cities are effectively one-party cities these days.
Our current electoral system is deeply broken, and is contributing to the increasingly dangerous hyperpartisanship that is fracturing our democracy by fostering a zero-sum, winner-take-all politics that consistently rewards extremism over compromise. We need to start experimenting with alternatives, and fast. Ranked-choice voting would be a great start.
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