Can Ranked-Choice Voting Improve Maine's Elections?

Sep 28, 2016

Ranked-choice voting sounds simple: Grab a ballot, rank the candidates in order of preference and, when someone gets a majority, they win.

Supporters of Question 5 on the Maine ballot say adoption of ranked-choice voting in statewide elections will improve the process in a number of ways, including the elimination of the so-called spoiler effect. But they’ll have to make their case to skeptics.

The ranked-choice voting camp has a lot of explaining to do between now and Election Day. So they’ve decided to do it over beer, at Mast Landing Brewery in Westbrook, where they are illustrating how ranked-choice voting actually works.

In this election, Seavey Island Ale is running against three other “candidates.” To win, it will have to get a majority of votes, or more than 50 percent — not just a plurality. That could take several rounds of tabulation, in which last-place candidates are eliminated and their supporters’ votes are redistributed to the remaining field.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting view the majority as more than just a threshold for victory. They see it as a game-changer for candidates, campaigns and our politics.

“No longer can you win by energizing your base, turning them out to vote, beating the heck out of your opponents and saying, ‘Vote for me because you hate them, and they can’t win.’ That’s what happens in our politics now. That can’t happen with ranked-choice voting,” says Kyle Bailey, who heads the Yes on 5 campaign.

Bailey is explaining the theory behind ranked-choice voting to the crowd of roughly 100 people at the brewery. Among them are Faye and Dan Lakeman, a couple from Windham.

“I do think we have extremes prevailing, and I think that’s why a lot of us are interested in the ranked-choice system” Faye Lakeman says.

And others, like Ashley Cust of Westbrook, point to the frustration with what’s become known as the spoiler effect, when a candidate wins a plurality because the opposition vote is divided by two or more candidates.

Avoiding the spoiler effect leads voters to vote strategically, or in some instances, for the candidate they don’t fully support.

“Quite frankly I was excited because I don’t want what happened with LePage happening again with another vote,” she says.

Gov. Paul LePage has twice been elected with a plurality, both times in races with more than two candidates.

Ranked-choice advocates say that might not have happened under their system, and they’re taking their cause directly to voters instead of the reticent Legislature.

“It’s a big opportunity for the people of Maine, and the voters of Maine, to lead the country out of the morass of disillusionment, and upset, and lack of legitimacy that is plaguing our democracy,” says Hendrik Hertzberg, a former speech writer for President Jimmy Carter, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and board member for FairVote, the organization organization pushing ranked choice in Maine and elsewhere.

But why is the passage of ranked choice considered such a big deal?

Advocates cite a historic spike in the number of gubernatorial elections in which the candidate has only won with a plurality — nearly 27 percent of the 90 gubernatorial contests since 2010. That’s the most in over a century, according to an analysis by the website Smart Politics.

Ranked-choice advocates believe the absence of a majority undermines the legitimacy of the winner, handicaps moderate candidates and exacerbates negative campaigns. They argue that ranked choice forces candidates to campaign — and govern — for voters other than the active base constituencies of the political parties.

In order to appeal to more voters, Hertzberg says, candidates would have to rethink their scorched-earth campaign strategies.

“It’s a big incentive not to go completely cut-throat,” he says.

But the system has its critics.

“Ranked choice voting is not democratic, it’s not necessary, it’s not constitutional and it’s not usual,” say Gordon Weil of Harpswell, a former aide to presidential candidate George McGovern. “What it is is complicated, corruptible and costly.”

Weil describes a system overly reliant on ballot counting computers. He also believes that advocates fundamentally misunderstand the real forces that affect civility in politics.

“Even in this form of voting you’re not going to change human behavior. Our problem is we can’t find out how to compromise. And that’s done by people, not by voting machines,” he says.

Maine’s secretary of state has estimated that the cost of the new system is nearly $1 million a year. Election officials have also warned that ranked choice isn’t constitutional, an assertion confirmed by Attorney General Janet Mills.

If voters approve it in November, the Legislature will likely have to pass a constitutional amendment to make it lawful. And that, too, will require approval from voters, likely next year.

Weil and other opponents argue that ranked choice just isn’t worth the trouble. If Mainers want to make sure candidates win with a majority, he says they can adopt less costly options, such as run-off elections.

That means the state would hold another election if the first one didn’t produce a majority winner. Some Maine cities, including Lewiston, hold run-off elections. Eight states do it for primary elections.

The argument against run-offs is that they’re costly and depress turnout. But that wasn’t the case in the Lewiston mayoral race last year. Turnout in that race dipped a little more than 1 percent between Election Day and the run-off.

Weil cites the $155,000 estimate given by state election officials when a bill proposing a run-off change was proposed in 2013.

“The cost we’re talking about for a run-off is some 60 cents a voter,” he says. “That’s less than a candy bar. Isn’t democracy worth more than a candy bar?”

Last year, San Francisco State University professor Jason McDaniel published a study asserting that ranked choice decreased turnout among less-experienced voters, including minorities and younger people.

“We have hundreds of years of reforms in this country of the voting system. And the ones that make voting more complicated tend to have an adverse effect on the level of participation,” he says.

FairVote sharply challenged the findings, saying the study focused too much on a noncompetitive San Francisco mayoral race. But McDaniel stands by his research which, he says, shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with election reform.

But Weil says the ranked-choice campaign, though well-intended, hasn’t made a good case.

“We’ve lived through some pretty bad things in this world and I think we shouldn’t change our political system just because we don’t like Paul LePage,” he says.

Back at the brewery, Bailey keeps the focus on the beer — and the promise of ranked-choice voting.

“This is something we can do now to improve the political process. We don’t have to wait for politicians, parties or PACs to figure out that the system isn’t working. We can make it work for us,” he says.

On this night, the winner was Tell Tale Pale Ale.

Mainers will decide on Question 5, and four other ballot initiatives, on Nov. 8.