Ranked Choice Voting: a Solution in Search of a Problem


In 2010, then-Mayor Paul LePage managed to win the governorship with roughly 38 percent of the vote, prompting a group of disaffected whiners to put “61%” stickers on their car.

It was then that the Ranked Choice Voting dream was born.

Ranked Choice would replace our current system of electing candidates with a new system that asks you to rank candidates in order of preference.

If no candidate gains 50 percent of the vote, an “instant runoff” occurs, with the bottom candidate eliminated, and his or her second-choice votes added to the total, and so on until a winner is determined.

Funny how this type of an idea didn’t pop up when John Baldacci won 38 percent of the vote in 2006, or Angus King won 35 percent in 1994.

In any event, this ballot question will actually make our elections worse. Here’s why.

It will not reduce negative campaigning.

Everyone hates negative campaigning, and those pushing Ranked Choice know this, which is why they are making “an end to negative campaigning” a centerpiece of their argument.

In order to win the election, the argument goes, you will need to be the second choice of the other candidates, so that when they drop out, you can get their support. Lovefest ensues. Politics is cured of evil!

The reality is quite different. It will actually make negative campaigning worse. Undeniably, it will drive negative campaign spending to third-party groups, even more so than in recent years.

Third-party groups will almost entirely take over the role of attack dogs for their newly two-faced, sneering candidates who can call themselves “clean” and “positive,” while their vicious, unaccountable friends savage their political opponents for them.

Ranked Choice will further the trend of candidates being fake and lying to me to get my vote, while their allies murder their political adversaries for them.

It will not give voters more power, it will simply make the system more confusing and convoluted.

“Who won the election?”

“I don’t know, hang on… Smith came in last, so I’m taking all his voters over here, and I’m figuring out who all his people wanted if he was gone. Then I have to go over here and take all those people and add it to these totals over here, and get the new totals. Okay, carry the two… and done!”

“So do we have a winner?”

“Actually, no. The top guy still doesn’t have 50 percent. So looks like Jones is the next one out. Okay, so let’s take all his voters and… wait, where were his ballots? Oh, there they are. Okay. So take his voters and count… is it his third place vote, or second place vote? Second place? Okay… but wait… what if this guy’s second place vote has already been eliminated? Oh, we go to his third place vote? Okay, so that guy over there is voting for his second favorite guy, this guy is voting for his third favorite guy, and that one over there is voting for his favorite, because he hasn’t been eliminated yet? Okay… carry the three… wait, I just added all these to the first round tally sheet. Has anyone seen my second round sheet? Oh, there it is, okay. Done.”

“So what about now, do we have a winner?”

“I guess. Oh, turns out it was the guy who won the plurality anyway.”

All votes are not created equal.

In a ranked choice system, your votes are cast based on personal affinity (I like this person more than that person) rather than a direct evaluation of one candidate against another.

That is why states that wish to force majority elections do not use Ranked Choice. They use two-round voting systems, whereby everyone votes for their first choice in the first round, and all but the top two vote getters are dropped, and a new election is subsequently held between those remaining candidates.

This allows voters to reset themselves and reevaluate the election based on the remaining candidates, and consider all the new variables created by the field being winnowed down.

Oh yeah, and it is unconstitutional.

It is kind of sad I’m mentioning this last, but the proposal is almost certainly unconstitutional.

In March, Attorney General Janet Mills — a Democrat — issued an opinion, after receiving a request from Maine Senate President Mike Thibodeau, stating that if the voters passed Ranked Choice, it would likely require amending the Maine Constitution to implement, because it directly violates current constitutional language.

But, in typical style, the initiative moves ahead unabated, with spokesman Kyle Bailey essentially saying that we’ll just have to figure it out later.

This article originally appeared in the BDN.

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of Maine Policy Institute. Prior to his tenure at Maine Policy Matt spent eight years working in national politics in Washington, D.C., most recently as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association. A Hampden native, Matt is a nationally recognized political strategist and communicator.

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