Like many people in Maine, I’ve been thinking about our election system. There has been a lot of recent news coverage not just about who we elected for governor, but how we elected him. This coverage has left out any real discussion of the single best reform we could make to our state’s election system.
Attacks on the long tradition of early and absentee voting in Maine ignore the fact that the popularity of absentee voting in gubernatorial elections has significantly increased voter turnout since at least 2002. This time around, more than 140,000 people voted early or absentee. Any move to eliminate the choice and convenience of this option will restrict voter participation, counter to the core principles of our democratic system.
Likewise, the increasing attention on Instant Runoff Voting focuses on the laudable ideals behind it — primarily that the victor ought to have at least 50 percent of the vote to win and that Instant Runoff Voting reduces the motivation behind negative campaigning. I support these ideals, but news coverage has glossed over some of the clear drawbacks of Instant Runoff Voting — namely high cost, complexity and effectiveness in delivering the kind of changes its supporters promise.
Instant Runoff Voting is used in several smaller jurisdictions in the U.S., mostly counties and towns. But what you’ll rarely read about are the places where it’s failed. Voters in Pierce County, Wash., eliminated their Instant Runoff Voting system earlier this year after county officials tabulated the actual cost of implementing the 2008 law at well over $3 million. Similar Instant Runoff Voting systems have been abandoned in Ann Arbor, Mich., Burlington, Vt. and Aspen, Colo.
Instant Runoff Voting also faces questions stemming from the complexity of tabulating votes. The election of the 2004 San Francisco Board of Supervisors required 19 rounds of voting before any candidate reached 50 percent of the vote. And it deserves noting that the winning candidate was the first choice of only 37 percent of first round voters. Some may rightly question whether Instant Runoff Voting truly represents the will of the majority or is simply an artificial way of presenting a more appealing plurality in multiway races.
There’s a clear choice missing among those wishing to advocate change to Maine’s election system. Missing is discussion of a reform that would be easy and inexpensive to implement as well as effective in increasing voter participation and reducing the negative campaign tactics associated with the political fringes.
The change I’m talking about is open primaries.
At least 33 states have some form of open primary system and every single state has some form of early and absentee voting — for good reason, democracy depends on broad participation to work well. Not one statewide or federal election uses Instant Runoff Voting — perhaps also for good reason.
In Maine’s June 2010 primary, 64,545 more voters cast a ballot for the referendum questions than voted for a gubernatorial candidate of either party. It’s highly likely that many or most of those were the 385,388 unenrolled voters in Maine who cast a ballot for the referendum questions, but could not vote in the gubernatorial race. Our currently closed primary system only allows those enrolled in a party to vote for party candidates.
In an open primary, unenrolled voters would be able to cast ballots for a party candidate without having to enroll as a Democrat or Republican. This would have two very important immediate effects: Candidates in the primary would campaign to a much broader population of voters than just their political base, and members of the largest voting bloc in the state, unenrolleds, would have more reason to participate in the process.
Having to appeal to voters from a broader political spectrum would both encourage candidates to embody more moderate positions than the extremes of either party and reduce the effectiveness of negative campaign tactics designed to energize their partisan base.
And if unenrolled voters began to turn out in numbers approaching those of either party, it would mean tens of thousands more Mainers would have a voice in shaping the political landscape.
The cost of open primaries would be little more than the cost of printing the extra ballots required to accommodate unenrolled voters. I’d guess that would be measured in the thousands of dollars rather than in the millions.
Maine voters should strongly consider open primaries. We can’t afford not to.
Rosa Scarcelli is CEO of Stanford Management, an affordable housing provider in Maine and three other states. To see more, go to www.rosaformaine.com.