With increasing numbers of multicandidate races around the country, and an explosion in campaign spending and negative advertising, many states are exploring reforms to election systems that were designed for just two candidates. Maine’s history of independent candidates has highlighted these issues earlier and more deeply here.
The problem is that as soon as a third candidate enters a political race, considerations such as spoiler effects and strategic voting become central, and minority winners are common. The proposed solutions all involve a narrowing down of candidates and some kind of run-off system that requires the final support of a majority of voters.
The best and most cost-effective of these reforms is ranked choice voting, which uses a vote counting process that is identical to holding run-off elections, while avoiding the delay, expense and drop in participation of requiring voters to go back to the polls.
The key point is this: With ranked choice voting, your ballot already indicates who you would choose in a run-off election, if a run-off count is needed to establish a majority winner.
How does this work?
When you fill out your ballot, you are asked to rank the candidates. Next to Emma Johnson’s name, you fill in the box that says “first choice.” Next to Jack Carson’s name, you fill in the box that says “second choice.” Next to Chloe Taylor, “third choice.”
Turn in your ballot to your town or city clerk, and you’ve done your part as a voter — no need to return to the polls another time, even if none of the candidates get a majority of first place votes.
When the polls close on Election Day, all of the first place votes are counted by a voting machine or by hand, just as they are today. And if someone gets a majority of first place votes, that candidate wins, just like today.
But if nobody gets a majority of first place votes, then the person with the fewest votes is eliminated and an “instant run-off” happens among the others. Every ballot still counts in the run-off, just as if every voter is returning to the polls to vote again.
If your first choice candidate is still in the running, your ballot continues to count for that candidate. If your first choice candidate is out, your rankings are used to determine who you prefer among the remaining candidates. Exactly like an actual run-off election.
The benefits of this reform are enormous.
First, the finally elected candidate is chosen by a majority of voters.
Second, there is no such thing as a spoiler candidate. If a candidate turns out not to be electable, then he or she is eliminated in the counting process. The candidate doesn’t “spoil” the result by taking away votes from somebody else.
Third, voters can cast their vote for a preferred candidate without the strategic dilemma of potentially helping a candidate they oppose.
Fourth, by avoiding spoiler candidates and strategic voting, the entire messaging of campaigns, media coverage and public evaluation of candidates will focus on issues, vision, experience and capabilities; not on polling and electability.
Fifth, elected candidates can serve with a credibility and mandate that can only be delivered by a majority of votes cast.
Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, campaigns will be more civil and respectful, as candidates avoid alienating their opponents’ supporters. Rather than appealing to loyal supporters alone, a winning candidate needs to appeal to a genuine majority of all voters, including those whose first choice may be somebody else.
Ranked choice voting does not favor one party over another. Over the last 40 years in Maine, only two governor’s races have been won by majority vote. The other nine races? James Longley (I) by 39.7 percent in 1974, Joseph Brennan (D) by 47.7 percent in 1978, John McKernan (R) by 39.9 percent in 1986 and 46.7 percent in 1990, Angus King (I) by 35.4 percent in 1994, John Baldacci (D) by 47.2 percent in 2002 and 38.1 percent in 2006, and Paul LePage (R) by 37.6 percent in 2010 and 48.2 percent in 2014.
These governors may well have won in a ranked choice voting system, too, but it would have been with majority support, and with a system not degraded by spoiler effects and negativity.
A group of over 400 Mainers have been circulating petitions to implement these reforms and to establish ranked choice voting in our state. We invite your involvement and support.
Dick Woodbury served 10 years in the Maine Legislature, advocating for a less partisan approach to politics and policymaking. He is leading a citizen initiative to establish ranked choice voting in Maine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.