Ranked choice voting: muddled solution to non-problem

Next Tuesday, Primary Day, Maine voters go to the polls. That might make you think of the nature of elections, and that question will be on the ballot in November, when Mainers next vote.

Voters will then be asked if they want to replace the traditional Maine voting system, under which the person with the most votes is the winner, by a more complicated “ranked choice” system, under which second, third and even later choice votes count.

Right now, 39 states use the same system as Maine. Even if the person with the most votes does not gain more than half the votes, that person is elected. The remaining 11 states use a run-off in which the top two candidates in the first round run again.

No state uses ranked choice voting. As much as Maine, proud of its Dirigo motto, would like to lead, perhaps this time the wisdom of others should be heeded.

The ranked choice proposal appears to have arisen because of the 2010 and 2014 races for governor. Republican Paul LePage won both elections with less than half the votes, because his Democratic and independent opponents split the remaining votes.

While this has occurred many times in previous Maine elections without causing much concern, LePage’s highly controversial performance has caused some voters to regret their failure to unite, blocking his election. Supposedly, ranked choice voting might have automatically created anti-LePage unity.

The proposal’s backers may have the 2018 U.S. Senate race in mind. Sen. Angus King, running as an independent, could face LePage and a Democrat. A split vote might again open the way for LePage.

The driving idea behind the ranked choice voting proposal is that public officials should be chosen by a majority of the voters. The key weakness of the proposal is that the winner could still not be chosen by a majority of the voters.

The winner could be everybody’s second choice and nobody’s first choice.

In fact, ranked choice voting could result in a winner who had no first place votes beating a candidate who just missed having an outright majority.

The system would allow a collection of first, second and third place votes for one candidate to edge out a candidate that had won the most first place votes. That might work in picking your favorite color but not a government leader, who must have more than a single characteristic.

If Mainers felt it was so important to have a person elected by an absolute majority, the state could adopt a run-off system, used in other states. The top two candidates in the first round would face each other in the second round with the person elected having a clear majority.

In that way, the run-off election would give the voters a clear choice not muddled by the counting of second, third and lower preferences. The run-off campaign would be real with candidates forced to confront one another, not one carried out remotely on a computer.

The arguments against a run-off are that it would cost more or have a smaller turnout. The relatively small cost of the second round seems worth it, and the recent Lewiston mayoral run-off did not lose voter turnout.

Or the California system could be used. Party primaries have been replaced there by a single all-party primary with the two top vote getters meeting in the general election. That involves no added cost.

Ranked choice voting in Maine has three serious drawbacks. First, it is confusing and the voters’ choices can be unclear and manipulated in a multi-candidate election.

Second, it is questionable if ranked choice voting, even if approved by the voters, would be constitutional. Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has responded to an official legislative request that it raises “significant constitutional concerns.”

If it passed, it almost certainly would not be applied until after the Maine Supreme Court considered if it were constitutional. If it weren’t, then the Constitution would have to be amended, requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and a referendum.

Finally, it’s like using a cannon to swat a fly – changing the voting system because you don’t like LePage.

Other less confusing and complicated ways can be used to ensure that the likelihood of minority governors is reduced. Some require little or no legislative change.

The campaign on ranked choice voting has already begun. The election next week is a good time to start thinking about the November vote. The proposal may sound good, but there’s less there than meets the eye.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.