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John Rensenbrink is a professor emeritus of government at Bowdoin College and co-founder U.S. and Maine Green Parties.
Consider the intense battle for the U.S. Senate seat now occupied by Sen. Susan Collins.
Some important implications of ranked-choice voting have not yet come to light. One of the hitherto “hidden” secrets about the workings of RCV is that to win, a candidate now must obtain a majority of all the votes cast. A plurality is not sufficient. “Winner-take-all” does not apply. The winning candidate has to get a majority (not merely a plurality) of all the votes cast in the general election.
In this close fight between Collins and Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, with independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn also in the race, no one will likely reach a majority in the first round. So to win, a candidate needs help.
Collins and Gideon need help. In battering one another with gusto, especially via daily blistering ads in our mailboxes that only serve to cancel each other out, they thus far seem blissfully unaware that they need help. They may realize this at any point, maybe soon. The realization may come too late for one or the other or for both. But come it will.
The help is present in the ballots of the voters who will rank Savage or Linn first. These voters have the opportunity, if not indeed the power, to decide the race. Their ballots in the voting booth will tell them they can put one of the other candidates second, third and fourth on their ballots.
In the ballot counting, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Their second place preferences are distributed to the other candidates. The process continues until one of the candidates has a majority.
This is more solid support than a plurality. A candidate who reaches office needs majority support in office far more than we have been accustomed to think.
Simply bashing other candidates is not a winning strategy, therefore. Competitive debate is far better. It produces room for meeting the opposition at least half way. Candidates can even urge partisan voters for other candidates to put their name second on their ballots.
Some have argued that the percentage of the vote for the independents will be too small to matter. Two brief comments are relevant. First, in the historic RCV election for Congress in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in 2018, independent Tiffany Bond got nearly 6 percent of the first-place votes; independent Will Hoar received more than 2 percent of the first-place votes. In that close election, even that relatively small number was the difference between victory and defeat for Jared Golden who won, because of RCV, and Bruce Poliquin who lost.
Second, according to a recent poll, Savage has 4 percent support. Her numbers are likely growing. She has already far more media attention and public expressions of support than Bond and Hoar did in 2018. Savage’s performance in the first debate on Sept. 11 was exemplary. Her impact in this election, both because of her qualities and because of RCV, may and probably will be enormous.