Let's talk about that "ranked voting" system Maine is using today

As voters in Maine go to cast their ballots today in primary races for Governor, one of their congressional seats and a state legislative seat, they’ll be using a new voting system. We’ve discussed it here in in the past when the proposal has surfaced in various places, but until now it hadn’t been implemented. They’re using a ranked voting system, where you need to select all of the candidates and rank them in order of preference. In the case of the Democratic gubernatorial primary, that means they’ll need to prioritize seven different candidates. This is just a hot mess waiting to happen. (WaPo)

On Tuesday, voters here are trying something never done before in the country on this scale: Instead of voting for one candidate in the race for governor, they’re ranking their choices from first to last.

It’s a totally new way of electing politicians in America, one pitched by advocates as the single most transformative way to inject collegiality into today’s hyperpartisan political climate. And if it works, Maine could be a guide for other states considering doing the same.

But it’s not clear whether voters will like it, or whether they will vote on the very same ballot to keep ranked-choice voting after years of legal challenges from Republicans trying to get rid of the system voters approved in 2016.

Here’s how it works. Nobody can win any of these races with a plurality of the vote, as often happens in crowded primaries. All the voters have to assign a number from one to seven for each of the candidates. Assuming nobody gets 50%, the candidate with the fewest first place (number 1) ballots is eliminated and each ballot is moved over to whoever the voter selected as number 2. If that still doesn’t produce a majority winner, the candidate with the second least number 1 selections is similarly removed and all those ballots transfer to the number two choice. (Presumably, if the second choice on that ballot is the person eliminated in the first round they skip over and go to the third choice.) This continues until somebody makes it to fifty percent.

The justification for this is that it will force the candidates to be “more collegial” toward each other. Your guess is as good as mine as to how that’s supposed to happen, but two of the dark horse gubernatorial candidates released this video demonstrating how it’s supposed to work. They’re also unintentionally showing why the system is so open to corruption.

There are a couple of major problems with this system and they may explain why Maine’s highest court already ruled that this voting method is unconstitutional and can’t be used for the general election. (But they’re stubbornly using it in the primary anyway.)

First of all, what if voters don’t like any of the candidates except for one? If their candidate is knocked out, the state is now transferring their vote to someone who they don’t support at all. But if they don’t fill out the entire ballot, their vote isn’t counted. That’s a serious issue. And on top of that, this is going to make for a very confusing ballot. We’ve seen in the past how many people can’t manage to fill out a simple choice of filling in one oval per race. Now you’re asking them to do math in the voting booth?

The other problem is that the parties can get up to various hijinks when a lot of people are running. Candidates can make backroom deals to come up with campaign strategies such as the one we see in that advertisement video above. If you’re worried that you’re not going to win you can cut a deal with another candidate to toss your support their way in exchange for “later considerations.”

Each candidate in any election should stand on their own merits and convince as many voters as possible to support them. If you can’t muster the highest number, you lose. Sucks to be you, but that’s how it is. This is a solution in search of a problem and will not “reform” voting in any fashion.