This year, Mainers will face one of the most important, but complex, ballot questions in decades. Along with many other issues, we will decide as a state whether to fundamentally change our democratic system by adopting ranked-choice voting statewide. This system, rather than simply asking voters to select a candidate, asks them to rank their choices in order of preference. The votes of lesser-performing candidates are then redistributed until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote, giving them a majority.
If this system sounds complicated and unnecessary, that’s because it is. Rather than being a realistic reform, it’s a solution in search of a problem. Theoretically, the problem it’s trying to solve is candidates being elected with a plurality, rather than an outright majority, of the popular vote. Of course, Maine has long held elections this way, as has the rest of the country, so the question is why this is really considered a problem. As a state, Maine has elected liberals, conservatives, and moderates; Republicans, Democrats, and independents. We’ve elected national leaders on both sides of the aisle. Why should we do away with a system that seems to be working just fine?
In Portland, where it has been used in mayoral elections, ranked-choice voting hasn’t had much impact on the outcome. In the 2011 race, Michael Brennan won in the first round with a plurality; he also won in the final tally. In 2015 challenger Ethan Strimling got more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. So, in both cases, ranked choice voting did not affect the results: either man could have won in a traditional plurality vote. They both won because they ran good campaigns, not because of ranked-choice voting.
Of course, in a statewide race, the results might be different. Supporters of ranked-choice voting seem to be taking the pessimistic view that Mainers vote against people, rather than for people. In 2010, for example, Paul LePage won because he got the most votes: more people wanted him to be governor than anyone else. That’s how democracy is supposed to work, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Under ranked-choice voting, however, he might have lost once the votes of Democrat Libby Mitchell were redistributed. So, instead of electing someone who the majority of Mainers didn’t vote for, we’d elect someone else whom the majority of Mainers didn’t actually vote for. Ranked-choice voting creates an imaginary, feel-good majority, not a real one that actually brings people together.
So if ranked-choice voting doesn’t create a majority, what does it do?
Well, it would undermine the rigorous vetting process that occurs during primaries and significantly weaken the two major parties. That would make it harder for those who don’t have the money to buy their own statewide organization to advance, and it would help a candidate whose main appeal was themselves, rather than their positions. Instead of better debates, we’d get campaigns more like Supreme Court nominations, where candidates would try to say as little as possible in order to offend the fewest people. Rather than bold ideas, we’d get endless, meaningless platitudes and a consistent defense of the status quo.
That is not the kind of change Maine needs. Our state needs fundamental reform that improves our quality of life, and that won’t come from candidates who run on the basis of telling people what they want to hear. It’s understandable that Eliot Cutler and his supporters are disappointed that he lost twice, but rigging the rules in his favor isn’t the solution. The real solution is simply to find a better candidate whom Mainers actually want to see in office.