From our earliest days as a republic, citizens have struggled to gain the right to vote, have their voices heard and experience the majority rule. Concerned that the majority propertyless citizens might take actions that threaten the propertied minority, our Founding Fathers initially limited voting rights to property owners. Prior to and following the 1776 Declaration of Independence, Jews, Quakers and Catholics were barred from voting or running for office in several colonies and states.
Following the Civil War, in 1870, the 15th Amendment allowed nonwhite men to vote. And 50 years later the 17th Amendment gave women the franchise. Progress notwithstanding, poll taxes, voter registration restrictions and intimidation have weakened participation in our democracy. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, allowing unlimited, undisclosed donations to candidates takes us back to the 17th century when wealthy individuals and organizations controlled elections.
Yet, step by step the American democracy has, though grudgingly, become more inclusive.
Recently, here in Maine on Nov. 3, a solid majority of voters supported a referendum aimed at strengthening Maine’s Clean Election Act, by “improving the disclosure of who pays for political ads, and to increase penalties for violations of campaign finance law.” These, among other provisions, favor candidates willing to forego campaign funding from special interests.
Our current voting system produces majority winners in races with only two candidates competing for an office. But races with more than two candidates are common in Maine, and often winners are elected with the support of less than 50 percent of voters and, in too many instances, less than 40 percent of voters. In nine of the last 11 races for Maine’s governor, the winning candidates were elected by less than half of all voters. Ranked-choice voting, sometimes called “instant-runoff voting,” will ensure our elected leaders are chosen by a majority of Maine voters.
What are the benefits of voting with a ranked-choice ballot? More power is put in the voter’s hands. Your voice is strengthened under the ranked-choice election process, and you never feel as if your vote is “wasted.” Like me, some of you would appreciate the freedom to vote for the candidate or candidates you like the best without worrying that you will help to elect an unappealing candidate.
Like the recent Clean Election referendum, ranked-choice voting will have an impact on how campaigns are run and how government works as demonstrated in communities across the United States and other democracies. To win elections with a majority support using a ranked-choice ballot, candidates must reach beyond their base, talk with more voters and ask for their support. Candidates with the ability to attract first and second choice rankings, and build majority coalitions, are more likely to win ranked-choice elections and govern as consensus builders.
Voters in communities with conservative, moderate and liberal majorities have preferred ranked-choice voting. It’s the next step to improve Maine’s election process.
Ted Koffman, a Democrat, served in the Maine House of Representatives from 2000 to 2008. He lives in Bar Harbor.