Ranked choice voting reveals weaknesses without promised benefits

Maine was fleetingly in the national political spotlight this year, because it held the first statewide election using ranked choice voting (RCV), the system allowing people to vote for several candidates in rank order.

After using the process in party primaries, Maine provided other states with a model to study.  An accompanying referendum suggested that RCV is here to stay.  The lessons from the process are worth examining, because Mainers will vote again on RCV and others may be tempted to try it.

The gubernatorial primary in both parties turned out to pit the favorite against the field.  Could using back-up votes change the outcome resulting from the traditional system in which the person with the most votes wins?

The RCV process changed nothing.  The two candidates, who would have been selected under the usual plurality voting, won under RCV.  The field could not gang up on the frontrunner.

The GOP race avoided RCV and simply gave Shawn Moody, the frontrunner, an outright majority.

On the Democratic side, Janet Mills, the ultimate nominee, led Adam Cote in the first round of vote counting by 54 percent to 46 percent, if only their votes are counted.  She obtained exactly the same result over him in the final round of ballot counting after all other candidates were eliminated.

In short, RCV offered no improvement on the traditional system.  If the state had used the California open primary system in which the top two candidates win and then face one another in November, the result would also have been the same.

RCV also showed that, as in almost all major elections, money matters, probably more than the process.  The candidates who invested in the greatest TV presence also got the most votes.

The other big spending campaign was waged in support of RCV itself, though it faced no organized campaign opposition.  The pro-RCV campaign was heavily funded by out-of-state millionaires who used Maine to test their political game.

The new process did not bring out more voters.  The last time there was an open governor’s seat was 2010, and there were five Republican primary candidates. They received 120,612 votes.  This time, using RCV, the four candidate GOP race drew 88,344 first round votes.  It’s questionable if RCV affects turnout.

The length of time it took to collect and count the ballots reveals some real and potential weaknesses in the RCV system.  It took days for the ballots to get to Augusta, but Moody, the Republican, could start campaigning immediately.  Alan Caron, an independent candidate, promptly launched his television ad campaign.

Though Mills has a platform as Attorney-General, she could not begin competing with them for eight days while ballots were being processed. That’s more than five percent of the total campaign period, a handicap imposed by RCV.

The collection and counting process ran into technical problems.  It looks like the Secretary of State’s office handled RCV well and without any bias.  But much of what happened between casting ballots and coming up with a final result was complicated and unseen by the public. A laptop computer ran the final count.

That process increases the chances of something going wrong or, even worse, of somebody tampering with it in a future election.  With RCV, we trust the most important political choices to a complex process in which there is more room for cheating or computer error.

At a time when we demand more transparency, RCV gives us much less.  Also, processing the ballots costs more.

The Republican primary kept alive the rule of one person, one vote.  The Democratic primary did not.  Some voters’ first choices kept changing as the field narrowed from the original seven candidates.  Meanwhile, other voters, who backed lower ranked candidates, were eliminated as the counting continued.

The Maine primaries were not the last word on RCV.  The state constitution allows it in federal races, but not in state general elections.  After its use in party primaries for governor, the traditional plurality vote will be used in the November election of the new chief executive.

To use RCV for general state elections would require passage of a constitutional amendment.  In effect, Mainers will have to vote for a third time on the new process.  More out-of-state money will pour in, attempting to influence how Maine governs itself.

If RCV survives, a voter for a losing candidate could go to court – state or federal – challenging the lack of one person, one vote.

The rest of the country will again get to watch Maine’s electoral drama.

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.