clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Maine passes ranked-choice voting, South Dakota approves campaign vouchers

In Maine, voters approved an initiative that would make the Pine Tree State the first state in the nation to have ranked-choice voting.

And in South Dakota, voters approved an initiative that would make the Mount Rushmore State the first in the nation to give every registered voter a campaign voucher.

After a night that thoroughly depressed most liberals, these are two notable bright spots.

Ranked-choice voting wins in Maine

By passing instant-runoff ranked-choice voting, Maine voters have a new way to elect their legislature, their governor, and their members of Congress.

Going forward, Mainers will now get to select up to five candidates in order of preference, instead of just one. If one candidate wins a majority in the initial tally, there is no runoff. If no candidate wins a majority, candidates are eliminated from the bottom up, with each eliminated candidate's supporters going to their next-ranked choice for the following round, until one candidate has more than half of the votes. For a video explanation of how this works, I recommend this short explainer.

To understand the significance of this, consider what would have happened if ranked-choice voting had been used last night in the presidential election. Donald Trump appears to have won a very narrow plurality in key states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Assuming that Jill Stein voters preferred largely Hillary Clinton to Trump, and Gary Johnson voters perhaps weakly preferred Clinton to Trump, it's possible that runoff voting could have given Clinton a narrow majority in these states, after these votes were transferred. It's also possible that under ranked-choice voting, Trump would not even have been the Republican Party nominee, since he was so broadly disliked by many voters.

I've made the case for ranked-choice voting here. Larry Diamond, Howard Dean, Krist Novoselic, and my colleague Michael Lind have also made strong cases. Broadly, we all expect ranked-choice voting would improve civility, expand voter choice, improve voter engagement, and lead to more ideological diversity by creating space for more parties. All of which seem desperately needed.

Campaign finance vouchers win in South Dakota

In South Dakota, voters approved Measure 22. That makes South Dakota the first state in the nation to implement a new and promising approach to campaign finance reform: vouchers.

The voucher idea is pretty straightforward. Every registered voter gets a set of coupons (branded as "democracy credits") to give to political candidates of their choosing, worth $100 per person in South Dakota. Candidates can only accept the coupons if they agree to limits on the private donations they accept — $250 for legislative candidates and $500 for statewide candidates, and those contributions can only come from state residents. The initiative also includes some broader lobbying and ethics reforms.

This is a big deal, especially in a deep red state. The initiative won despite opposition from the state Republican Party and opposition spending from the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity.

As I argued in an earlier piece making the case for the initiative: "It's clear that the status quo, in which a very small number of wealthy donors effectively decide on the candidates and their issue priorities, is unacceptable. We need to find an alternative."

While this initiative won narrowly in South Dakota, the same initiative lost narrowly in Washington. Initiative politics remains a bit of gamble.

Also worth noting on the campaign finance front, Missouri voters reinstated campaign finance limits by overwhelmingly passing Constitutional Amendment 2, which limits individual contributions to $2,600 to a candidate and $25,000 to political parties. There were also a few other state-, city-, and county-level resolution of note, catalogued here.

The status quo ain't working. Experimentation is good.

One broad takeaway from last night's voting is that a whole lot of voters are unhappy with the status quo, so unhappy that they're willing to take a major gamble. The narrative powering Donald Trump's campaign was that there is a corrupt and self-dealing elite that needs to be stopped. And even if voters didn't entirely trust Trump, he was their way to send a message.

Certainly, both the Maine ranked-choice voting initiative and the South Dakota voucher system are experiments. We'll need to give them time to work. But it's also clear we need to start experimenting. Our status quo is deeply flawed. And the states are the place to keep experimenting. There are many, many ways we can tinker with our electoral and campaign finance rules. If we want to keep working toward a more perfect union, we need to keep adjusting them and learning as we go. It's the only way we move to a more responsive democracy.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.