Ranked-choice voting: four alternatives that work better

This is the final part of a three-part series opposing ranked-choice voting, Question 5 on the November state ballot.

Suppose you regret the election of Gov. Paul LePage, the result of his opposition vote being split between two other candidates.

One solution, you think, might be ranked-choice voting, believing that way another candidate would have defeated LePage, despite his having the most first-place votes.

There are at least four other ways of dealing with plurality election winners.  They are less unusual, less complicated and more transparent.  And they are less dangerous to real democracy.

1.  The run-off election. The most obvious is the run-off, a second round election between the two top vote getters when nobody wins a majority.  Unlike ranked-choice voting, run-offs exist in several other states.

The run-off allows for a second round of campaigning, giving voters a close look at the finalists, and a real choice.

In 2015, the Lewiston mayoral race failed to produce a majority winner, so the city held a run-off between the top two vote getters.  The second-place finisher in the first round was elected after a fresh discussion of the issues.

Critics say second-round run-offs have lower voter turnouts and impose an added cost on taxpayers.  In Lewiston, the turnout for the second vote was about the same as the first.

As for cost, run-offs are not expensive and what voters buy is a real chance to vote, the most important role most people play in a democracy.  Is a real election worth the cost of a candy bar?  Remember, there are added costs for ranked-choice as well.

2. Top-two primaries. All candidates run against each other in the primary, and the top two finishers go onto the election ballot.

There are no party primaries.  The result may even be that two candidates of the same party or with similar views face each other in the election.  In contrast, run-off elections are usually between candidates of different parties.

This system has real advantages.  It can save money by replacing two political party primaries.  It prevents split voting from affecting the result.  It’s used in California and a few other states.

In Maine, that system could have yielded an election between LePage and independent Eliot Cutler in 2010 and between LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud in 2014.

3. “Plural nomination.” A candidate may appear more than once on the ballot.  That could allow a candidate to run as both a party nominee and an independent.

In closely contested elections in recent decades, the candidates for governor were a Republican, a Democrat and a former Democrat running as an independent.  These independents were Jim Longley, the 1974 winner, Angus King, who won in 1994 and 1998, and Cutler in the two LePage elections.

King looks like he could run as a Democrat in 2018, but he might remain an independent.  The Democrats will want to have a Senate candidate on the ballot, because a failure to field a candidate for statewide office could affect the rest of the ticket.  Right now in Maine, a candidate can only appear once on the ballot.

This solution, also called “electoral fusion,” would require only minor legislative changes and could prove a viable alternative to ranked-choice voting.  A candidate like King could run on two different lines on the ballot, say Democrat and independent, avoiding a split that LePage might try to exploit.

This procedure is authorized in nine states and has been frequently used in New York.  Earl Warren was elected this way as governor of California and went on to be U.S. chief justice.

What all these voting methods have in common is they are used in other states and are part of the American political tradition, while ranked-choice voting is not used in any American statewide election.  They all accomplish the same purpose sought by ranked-choice advocates.

4. Status quo. The best solution is probably to stick with the current use of plurality elections, also used by the overwhelming majority of states.  The person with the most votes is elected.  Of course, a candidate lacking a majority may win, but that’s also true in ranked-choice voting.

The system imposes an obligation on voters to be aware of the risks of divided opposition.  The media and civic groups must do a better job of educating and informing voters on those risks.

In the current system, the voters must inform themselves and then decide.  While there are workable alternative methods, untested ranked-choice voting is an unsatisfactory substitute for widely accepted ways of providing real voter choice.

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.