American democracy is in trouble, but with a “yes” vote on Question 5 Mainers could do something significant to begin to fix it. By adopting ranked-choice voting, Maine could make its government work better while setting a model of reform for the rest of the country.
Our politics is more polarized and our government more dysfunctional than at any time in memory. Congress is deadlocked and divided into warring partisan camps. Public confidence in Congress is at an all-time low.
The two-party system, as now structured, is failing us. Decades ago, the party primary was a democratic innovation to take the process of candidate selection away from the political bosses and open it up to the people. Today, a larger but more damaging minority dominates the nominating process — the ideological extremes in each party, who pour forth in low-turnout primary elections.
Add to this the distortion of huge flows of special-interest money and the intensely negative tone of most political campaigns, and it is no wonder why more and more Americans are disenchanted with their politics and their political choices.
Sixty-three percent of Americans do not think the federal government has the consent of the governed, according to a Rasmussen poll, and 86 percent think our political system is broken and does not serve the interests of the American people, according to pollster Douglas Schoen. Eighty-one percent believe it is important to have independent candidates run for office.
The tea party and the impassioned left have brought energy and conviction to our politics, but their uncompromising stances are not in tune with majority sentiment. A majority of Americans believe it is more important for our national political leaders “ to compromise to get things done” (53 percent) than “to stick to their beliefs even if little gets done” (21 percent), according to Gallup.
Americans want more choice, more openness, more flexibility and compromise, but our political institutions are producing the opposite. Only by reforming our institutions can we reshape our politics.
The place to start is with the way we elect our public officials. The way our representatives and governing officials get elected shapes and constrains the way they govern. If politicians must fear being “tea-partied” if they compromise, compromise will be shunned and polarization will continue to deadlock our system. If moderation and compromise are rewarded at the polls, then our democratic system will call forth, as Abraham Lincoln hoped it would in his first inaugural address, “ the better angels of our nature.”
On Nov. 8, Mainers will have the opportunity to summon the better angels in our politics by voting yes on Question 5, which will implement ranked-choice voting in state and national elections, including for governor, Legislature and Congress. The ability to rank in preference all the candidates running for office rather than to vote for only one is intrinsically more democratic. But there are huge practical reasons why it is likely to invigorate our politics and reduce polarization.
Under ranked-choice voting, successful candidates must appeal to a majority of voters, because if no one wins a majority of first-preference votes, then lower-preference voters of the least popular candidates are transferred until someone emerges with a majority. This makes it much more likely that the winner will be someone open to moderation and compromise. And that is the only way to get things done in our democracy.
Under ranked-choice voting, voters who don’t like the established party choices will no longer have to worry about wasting their votes — they can vote their conscience or heart with a first preference, and rank their “less bad” option second. Under ranked-choice voting, more independents — who, I have found, tend to shy away from running because they don’t want to waste their time being a “spoiler” — will come forward and present their case. And smaller parties, including the Greens and Libertarians, also will have a fairer shot at being heard.
Ranked-choice voting is a reform whose time is coming in the United States. Several cities — including Portland — are already using it, and there is interest in other states, including in Minnesota for local elections. In the American federal system, crucial political reforms have often happened first in one state and then spread to others. Maine’s vote on Question 5 could light a fire of reform momentum in other states. This is why Question 5 represents the second most important vote in the U.S. this November, and Maine can lead the effort to make the U.S. a better democracy.
Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University in California and co-editor of the Journal of Democracy.