Maine is undergoing an experiment in their elections, one which has never been tried on this scale before. In their latest primary, the people of Maine conducted their elections through ranked-choice voting, and if it is successful, we could see this all across the nation.
The political history of Maine has been to say the least tumultuous. Their latest governor, Republican Paul LePage, was not only known for controversial and inflammatory statements during the 2016 election, but for winning with staggeringly low margins. In the 2010 Republican primary he won the nomination for governor with a shocking 37 percent of the vote, and in the general election won with only 38 percent. Later in 2014, he won re-election in a narrow three way race with just 48 percent of the vote. Many at the time blamed independent candidate Eliot Cutler, who ran in both races, although he vehemently denies being a two-time spoiler.
Due to this unlikely series of events, Mainers will instead rank their chosen candidates to avoid another plurality. Ranked choice voting sounds baffling at first, but on further examination, might allow for a better form of democracy than what we use today.
In our current system, should a candidate obtains a simple majority they win. Let’s take for example Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial election: In a four-way race, Paul LePage gained a “majority” with just 38 percent of the vote. The runner up, Eliot Cutler, received 36 percent, and was less than 7,500 votes behind LePage. In a distant third and fourth, the remaining candidates held 19 percent and 5 percent, respectively. The three losers had more in common with each other than with LePage, but each candidate stole votes from one another. In this scenario, no one really “wins,” because the “winner” only represents a minority of people.
In a ranked choice system, the voter would rank these four candidates from most to least preferred. If any candidate initially gets 50 percent or more of the vote, then congratulations, you found a new governor! However, if no candidate gains at least 50 percent of votes, then they would conduct an immediate runoff election, with candidates that had the least votes being eliminated and their votes being issued to the voter’s “second choice.”
So, if your preferred candidate lost, but you placed Eliot Cutler as your second choice, your vote would be then given to Cutler instead. Often when given the opportunity to vote for a minority candidate, you instead contribute to your least preferred option. In this case, by enabling a way to choose a “runner up,” the voter will end up with more meaningful representation.
The advent of ranked choice would also mean the nature of elections would change. Primaries would remain for the time being; Political parties would still want to select a candidate to allocate the party’s resources behind. But as more voters become comfortable with ranked choice, we’d see more independent and small party candidates to threaten the Democrat and Republican hegemony.
Opponents of ranked choice believe that not only is the system overly complex, but that it gamifies voting in a way that will confuse and deter potential voters. But I disagree; a ranked choice system is possibly the only fair way to run an election. Think about what the 2016 election may have looked like under ranked choice, would Trump still have succeeded in the overly crowded Republican primary? Could we have seen a resurgent Bernie Sanders run a general campaign against both Clinton and Trump?
Currently 11 municipalities in the US use a ranked choice system for elections, including Minneapolis and San Francisco. Other cities, like New York City, and over a dozen states, like Utah and Virginia, are considering adopting ranked choice. I certainly hope that even more follow Maine’s footsteps in the future.