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Maine could become the first state in the nation to have ranked-choice voting

Maine vacationland logo.
Maine vacationland logo.
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The 2016 presidential campaign has been an object lesson in the flaws of the traditional single-vote, plurality approach to elections.

First, we had the Republican primary. Donald Trump won, but he did not win a majority in any single state until relatively late, April 19.  Trump was also the most unpopular Republican candidate among almost a quarter of Republican voters. Had Republican primary voters used a system of instant-runoff, ranked-choice voting, Trump probably would not have been the nominee. That's because many Republicans would have ranked him dead last, or probably not at all.

Now, in the general election, many are worried that support for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein is making this election closer than it should be. Hillary Clinton may not be the most inspiring candidate to many voters, but most Stein or Johnson supporters would likely support her over Trump if they could rank the candidates. If so, an instant-runoff, ranked-choice voting approach would significantly decrease the likelihood of Trump becoming president.

All this is why I'm eagerly anticipating the results of a Maine state initiative that could make the Pine Tree state the first in the nation to use ranked choice voting to elect a legislature, a governor, and members of Congress.

If Maine Question 5 passes, Mainers will get to select up to five candidates in order of preference. If there is no majority in the initial tally of voting, and their first choice finishes last in the initial tally, their vote will be transferred to their second choice in the next tally. (In each tally, the last-place finisher gets eliminated). And if there is still no majority, and their second choice ranks last in the second tally, their vote will be transferred to their third choice, and so on, until one candidate has a majority.

Or, put another way: 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.)

Maine may be an especially fertile ground for such an initiative. Republican Gov. Paul LePage has twice been elected with less than majority support (including only 38 percent in 2010). He is widely unpopular and has drawn many comparisons to Donald Trump for his aggressive insults and overt racism. According to the latest polls, Mainers support the initiative 48 percent to 29 percent.

So far, ranked-choice voting systems have only been used in municipal elections in the US (though a few states use them for overseas voters). There are now 11 US cities using ranked-choice voting. However, since many city elections are effectively nonpartisan (typically, one party has an overwhelming majority) and also tend to be relatively low-turnout affairs, it's hard to be sure exactly what would happen on the state level. Still, there are some things we can learn from the municipal experiences so far.

The case against ranked-choice voting

Ranked-choice voting has its critics. The case against it is that it makes voting more complex, which might disadvantage poorer, less educated voters and reduce participation. Asking voters to rank three candidates may require more knowledge and more calculation than asking them to select just one.

This, for example, is the reason California's Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, just vetoed a bill that would have authorized local governments to use ranked-choice voting. In a veto message, he wrote, "Ranked choice voting is overly complicated and confusing. I believe it deprives voters of genuinely informed choice."

However, the claim that this allegedly demanding task of ranking candidates reduces participation, especially among poorer voters, comes from a single study of San Francisco covering five mayoral elections. There are good reasons to approach this study with some skepticism. The turnout of any given election is in part a function of who is running and how competitive the election is, and so it's very difficult to generalize from any given small set of elections in any one city. A more comprehensive analysis across multiple cities finds no change in turnout when cities move to ranked-choice voting.

A second related criticism of ranked-choice voting is that even if voters in poorer neighborhoods do turn out, they may be slightly less likely to take full advantage of their options and name three candidates, and they are slightly more likely to "spoil" their ballots by marking them wrong. At least, this is what happened in Minneapolis. However, more comprehensive evidence across multiple cities suggests that voters are not confused.

University of Minnesota political scientists Larry Jacobs and Joanne Miller, who conducted this study on Minneapolis, have some ideas on how to reduce possible voter confusion: "Plans to decrease the number of candidates and possibly revise the ballot to reduce its complexity might help. We also would recommend new thought about how the city and media can improve the quality of information that is distributed to all communities." These are good suggestions.

Most likely, as voters and candidates get more used to the new system, there will be less confusion. However, it's worth acknowledging the real possibility that voters in poorer neighborhoods might simply find fewer candidates appealing and might only want to support one or two candidates.

Still, this may not just be the fault of ranked-choice voting methods. After all, many politicians have often ignored poorer neighborhoods because they tend to vote at lower rates. So perhaps it's no wonder that many of these voters only want to support one or two candidates.

The case for ranked-choice voting

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 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 self-identifying as independents is now at a near-record high of 42 percent, while only 29 percent self-identify as Democrats and only 26 self-identify as Republicans.

Thus, 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, it would probably start to see third parties running candidates in more elections.

If this happens, it would improve representation, even if the two majority parties continue to win.

After all, an election with only two choices, Democrat and Republican, only allows voters to send a very weak signal. But in an election with multiple third parties, even if it winds up electing just a Democrat or a Republican, voters can send stronger signals of where that support came from and help bolster the potential influence of third parties.

Imagine an election of 100 voters in which the first choice round of voting goes: Democrat: 35, Republican 30, Libertarian 25, and Green 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 Green 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 as potential kingmakers, even if they didn't win many (or any) seats.

The other strong case 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 only can choose one candidate. But if candidates start competing to be voters' second and third choices, they have incentives to play a little nicer 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.

To the extent that zero-sum negative partisanship has become a debilitating force in our politics, electoral rules that promote civility could have a big change.

The case for experimenting

We've learned some things from trying out instant-runoff, ranked-choice voting at a municipal level. But state politics tend to be different from municipal politics. So it's an experiment. American states, after all, are "laboratories of democracy."

However, if the initiative succeeds (as polling suggests it will), we need to be patient. Any new system is going to require a learning period. Candidates and parties will change their strategies, and it may take them some time to learn what kinds of approaches work best. It will also take time for entrepreneurial third parties to figure out what opportunities exist. And voters will need to get used to ranking their choices.

It's also important to understand that Maine is unusual among states in that about 95 percent of its state legislative seats actually do have two-party competition. Nationwide, only 43 percent of state legislative seats have two-party competition. Maine also has elected an independent, Angus King, to be both governor and senator. Of its past 11 elections for governor, nine have been won with less than 50 percent, and five with less than 40 percent.

In some ways, this makes Maine a good test case for ranked-choice voting, since Maine has a history of electing independents and relatively balanced two-party competition could make it more sensitive to electoral rule changes. We should expect different results from those in municipalities where one party tends to dominate.

Obviously, any electoral system has trade-offs. Ranked-choice voting is a little more complex than single-choice voting. And if we find widespread evidence that it systematically disadvantages poor people, that is a real and genuine concern. Still, it's also something that voter education should be able fix.

But we also have to compare ranked-choice voting with the alternative. Our current single-vote, single-member district, winner-take-all approach to most elections in the United States is both a relic and a global outlier. It's a flawed system that has contributed to very high levels of partisan polarization and does a poor job representing most voters.

The real question is not whether we should maintain the status quo. We most definitely should not. The question is what should we move toward instead. Instant-runoff, ranked-choice voting is one option. It's an experiment worth doing. Hopefully, other states will experiment with other approaches, and we can continue to learn and improve our democracy in the process.

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