The one man, one vote adage may soon be history for Maine. The New England state is set to not just weigh in on the presidential race on Nov. 8, but also to decide whether or not its residents want to adopt a ranked-choice voting system. If Maine approves of the new structure (Question 5 on the ballot), it will become the first American state to do so.
Ranked-choice voting is a relatively new concept to most voters, and a complex one for supporters to sell. Despite endorsements from the Portland Press Herald and Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, a recent poll out of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center shows over 20 percent of voters still undecided on the issue.
“Obviously it makes voting more confusing. Proponents like to dismiss that idea, but they are allowing their elitism to show.”
In a ranked-choice system, voters are allowed to list the candidates running for office in the order they would prefer them to win. Instead of a winner takes all-one count, there are rounds adopted into counting votes. If a candidate does not win the majority of votes in the first round, an “instant runoff” begins. The candidate with the least amount of votes is disqualified. The ballots that voted for the disqualified candidate are then counted again, this time their votes going towards their second choice. If this sequence of events still does not present a candidate with a majority of votes, then on and on it goes until someone has over 50 percent.
Supporters say the adoption of ranked-choice voting will help to topple the two-party system and give a better platform for third-party candidates to be elected. Maine’s governor, Paul LePage, was elected twice with a plurality of the vote. In the traditional democratic system. a plurality victory is not a new concept, and Maine is already known to be friendly to third parties — the state boasts an independent senator in Angus King (who also won with a plurality).
Supporters still insist the system is in need of reformation. Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, told LifeZette, “Question 5 restores majority rule and eliminates the spoiler effect in elections with more than two candidates. You have the freedom to vote for your favorite candidate, without worrying that you will help to elect the candidate you like least — and without feeling like your vote is ‘wasted.'”
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Opponents believe the measure is merely a way to suppress the voice of the Right and to negatively affect voter turnout.
Matthew Gagnon, the Chief Executive Officer for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, said of Question 5, “Obviously it makes voting more confusing. Proponents like to dismiss that idea, but they are allowing their elitism to show. There are so many people to be concerned about. People who aren’t political junkies, or have limited understanding of the voting process.”
Gagnon also believes the measure has language that contradicts the Maine Constitution. He said courts may kill the measure even if it passes. “I think it ultimately goes nowhere, even if it passes,” Gagnon said. “But I’ve never been one for underestimating the ability of the judiciary to ignore law when making constitutional decisions.”
Representative Heather Sirocki (R-District 28) agrees with the flaky legality of ranked choice. “That’s been the problem right from the beginning. There have been many questions about the constitutionality of the ballot measure,” she told LifeZette. Sirocki says ranked-choice voting in Maine has been denied the typical “legal scrutiny” needed for such a drastic system change. “The whole thing is a scam,” said Sirocki, noting Maine has “a very easy system to hijack” and is being influenced by out-of-state special interests looking to expand ranked choice in the future.
If passed, Sirocki predicts, “there will be a court challenge” and “it will be overturned because it is clearly unconstitutional.” The question of constitutionality comes down to actions taken during a heated standoff in 1880 over Maine’s next governor. After tensions and near statewide civil war occurred over the governor not winning a majority of the vote and thus being selected by the House of Representatives, the Maine Constitution was changed to state a governor could win with a plurality of the vote.
Beyond state law, many say there are broader issues with ranked-choice voting and insist it has a bad record. San Francisco State University political scientist Jason McDaniel wrote in a piece for the Bangor Daily News about the negative effects that occurred once the city of San Francisco adopted ranked choice in 2004 in voting for municipal elections. McDaniel found in a study examining mayoral elections from 1995 to 2011 that it can negatively affect voter turnout, especially among voters with limited education and younger people.
“Decades of research show us that when voting is made more complex, it tends to lead to lower participation and more unequal outcomes,” McDaniel concluded.
Even third-party supporters aren’t entirely sold on the system. Despite many prominent groups and public figures promoting the measure in Maine (including Nirvana bassist and Fair Vote chairman Krist Novoselic), Libertarian magazine Reason’s associate editor Scott Shackford wrote, “Ultimately it’s hard to explain why this is any different from the winner-takes-all system we have now,” in a piece acknowledging ranked choice does not always guarantee a winning candidate receives the majority of the vote — because voters don’t need to rank all candidates, just the ones they prefer.
Wherever Maine falls on Nov. 8, there is no doubt the vote will have national repercussions. If adopted, it will all but guarantee ranked-choice voting will land on another state’s ballot — something proponents are no doubt counting on.