Maine looks at a flawed "instant runoff" vote

There’s an item on the ballot in Maine this fall which could have far reaching consequences for future office seekers. Question 5 has been entered into consideration in response to a series of embarrassing gaffes by their governor, Paul LePage. He’s been leaving threatening voice mails and saying things so obviously steeped in racial animosity that the local Klan leaders were left cringing. But the unrest has led to this new proposal, largely because LePage didn’t win his office with a majority. He fought in a crowded race and glided into office on the backs of a plurality. If Question 5 is approved, that’s going to come to an end. (The Intercept)

Partly in reaction to LePage’s victories, activists have put Question 5 on the ballot, an initiative that would create what is called a “ranked choice” or “instant runoff” voting system for all state-level races. If Maine votes yes on Question 5, it would mean that no one could be elected to state-level office in Maine — meaning governor, U.S. senator and representative, and state senator and representative — without the support of a majority of voters.

This “ranked choice” system is already in use at the municipal level in almost a dozen cities but never at the state or federal level. It’s always seemed sketchy to me for a number of reasons and it’s problematic to see it moving into wider use, though it’s been discussed frequently for the party primaries as well. (Particularly after the mess we ran into this year.) Here’s the basic rundown of how it would work:

Instead of just voting for who you want to win, you need to assign a ranked preference to every candidate in the race… first, second, third, etc. for everyone on the ballot for each office. If someone gets a majority of first place votes there’s no problem and he or she wins the election. But if nobody gets a majority, then whoever receives the fewest first place votes is booted and the second place choices from their supporters are distributed to the remaining candidates and counted on top of their original first place votes. If there’s still nobody with a majority, the next lowest finisher is similarly booted and the process continues until someone breaks 50%.

On the surface it at least sounds somewhat fair because the preferences of the voters are being taken into consideration, right? But what if a seriously die-hard fan of one of the candidates absolutely despises the rest of the field? (And if you take a quick glance at the presidential race right now that’s probably not much of a stretch of the imagination.) Is the voter forced to fill in a number for each candidate? If they only select a first place choice (assuming some of them use paper ballots) are their votes simply thrown out? If you force them to pick a second place choice (and beyond) and their candidate is tossed after the first count then you are, in effect, forcing them to either cast a vote for someone they vehemently oppose or to not vote at all.

Does that really sound all that democratic to you?

Keep in mind that this seems to be a purely reactionary move against LePage rather than some wholesale rejection of a normal one person one vote procedure. And it may all be for nothing because LePage is already thinking of just quitting anyway.

Gov. Paul LePage raised the possibility Tuesday that he may not finish his second term, amid mounting pressure from Democrats and members of his own party to amend for his recent actions.

“I’m looking at all options,” the Republican governor said while appearing on WVOM, a Bangor talk radio station. “I think some things I’ve been asked to do are beyond my ability. I’m not going to say that I’m not going to finish it. I’m not saying that I am going to finish it.”

When you set up a system where you get multiple candidates (which we frequently see in Louisiana for example) you’re going to wind up with a plurality finish some of the time. At that point you can either give the winner the office as Maine has traditionally done or go to a runoff election between the top finishers as they do in Louisiana. In the latter scenario the voter has the option of staying home or writing in someone else if they can’t stand the rest of the candidates. Either way is fine as long as the voters agree to it. I understand that a runoff can be expensive and delays the final result, but hey… democracy is messy sometimes, as Donald Rumsfeld once said. Either of those choices, however, is better than a system where you might wind up forcing people to vote for someone they do not support.


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