The state of Maine has watched another election come and go, and as Paul LePage takes his second victory with less than a majority vote, I am reminded of the system of voting from my home country: Australia.
It is known as preferential voting, or instant-runoff voting, and it is remarkably simple and much fairer than the current model used in major elections in the United States. If it sounds familiar, that’s because Portland used a variant of the system in the 2011 mayoral election, in which Michael Brennan was elected with a 55.8 percent majority.
The basic premise of preferential voting is that it dispels the futility of wasting your vote on a third-party candidate. Under the system, the choice between a “winning” vote and a vote for what one believes in is irrelevant. A vote cannot be “wasted” among a pool of 8.4 percent as in this case where they have with independent Eliot Cutler — or to look back, as we did as a country with independent party candidate Ralph Nader.
In Australia, voters are presented with a list of the candidates in the running and are required to order them according to their preference: first, second, third and so on. When the votes are tallied it becomes apparent which parties have attracted the least amount of votes, and so begins the second count. The votes are revisited with the second preference counted instead, continuing until one candidate acquires the majority vote, at least 50 percent plus one.
When you apply the preferential voting system to a situation like the 2014 Maine general elections, there is a rather large possibility that most of the 8.4 percent who voted for Cutler would have opted to list Michaud as second preference. If that were the case, most of that percentage would have rolled over onto Michaud’s 43.3 percent, making it a much firmer 51.7 percent.
I’m making assumptions here obviously, as the preferential voting system would have changed the outcome altogether. If someone knew that there was no way to waste a vote, how would that affect who they voted for? Support for third parties would likely grow to levels that haven’t been seen before and, while they might not be able to take the majority, it would change the way politics is played entirely.
If a candidate won on the basis of second preference votes from an independent party, they might consider altering their policy to keep those voters happy. This opens up possibilities for voters to send a clear message to their preferred candidate through the way that they vote. If a voter wanted to let a candidate know that they supported the legalization of marijuana, gun control or climate action, they could vote first for a party that was championing the cause, followed by their actual preferred candidate. While the party probably won’t win, the preferred candidate will receive clear numbers on what their supporters believe in.
At a more basic level, the system effectively eliminates situations where the majority of a state or country did not vote for their elected official. We saw this in 2010, when approximately 61 percent of Maine residents did not vote for LePage, but he won regardless. To take the argument in an ideological direction, it’s how democracy should actually function.
Of course there are disadvantages to preferential voting, and I’d never suggest that the system is perfect. It is more complicated to administer and count, it attracts more uninformed votes and forces voters to express preference for candidates that they may not support or even know. However, the advantage is worth these inconveniences since, ultimately, no vote goes to waste.
On a side note, it’s also mandatory to vote in Australia. The consequences for not doing so are small, a AUD$20 fine, but it has an impact. As for voter turnout? In more than 50 years it’s only twice fallen below 80 percent. But those are other matters altogether.
Rory Platt is a dual national of Australia and the U.K., an avid traveler and a freelance journalist. He currently lives in South Portland with his wife and son.