This opinion piece was originally published on July 5, 2023 in the Washington Times.
The insane election. That’s how I remember the 2021 race for the Charter Commission in Portland, Maine. The ballot asked voters to rank 10 candidates, from the one they liked most to the one they liked least — a system known as ranked-choice voting.
When the ballots were counted, the results defied logic. One of the winners started with 4 percent of the vote.
My city elected four at-large seats, and in a normal election, the four candidates with the most votes would have won.
Not this time. Under ranked-choice voting, if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the lowest-ranked candidate is eliminated, while voters who ranked that candidate first have their second-choice rankings counted instead. The process repeats until a candidate clears the 50 percent threshold.
The candidate who came in second place in the first round ultimately lost, while candidates who started with much less support came out on top.
Mainers are dealing with this madness almost every time we vote. Since 2018, every federal election and primary election for a state office has used ranked-choice voting. The only elections that aren’t covered by this system are the general elections for governor, state representative, and state senator since the state constitution requires that they be decided by plurality vote.
Now Democrats in the Legislature want to amend the state constitution. If their bill passes, the question will go to voters as early as November.
Voters have been deceived before. Maine’s ranked-choice voting system is the result of a 2016 referendum, which passed with 52 percent of the vote. Advocates declared it would cure the partisanship that ails modern politics.
The dream of ranked-choice voting is that “consensus” candidates win while “extreme” candidates lose.
In reality, there’s a more partisan explanation. Democrats don’t want Republicans to win.
As Maine Democrats have found out many times, the tried-and-true system of voting for a single candidate sometimes leads to elections in which liberals divide the vote.
It famously happened in the 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial races, when Republican Paul LePage won with pluralities. Democrats resolved to stop that from happening, using ranked-choice voting as their bludgeon.
Democrats got their wish in the first general election held under the new ranked-choice regime. In the 2018 midterm elections, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin — a Republican — received the most votes in the first round, with 46.33 percent. Yet he lost the race when ranked-choice voting kicked in.
The final winner was Democrat Jared Golden, who would have lost under the standard system since he got only 45 percent of the vote.
The 2021 Portland Charter Commission race saw something similar happen. The initial second-place candidate who eventually lost was a Republican. In the end, far-left candidates swept the race.
Democrats have no regrets about decisively shifting the balance of power in their direction. That’s why they’re moving to subject gubernatorial races to the same partisan system. Yet in the process of rigging elections, they’re eviscerating core small-d democratic principles.
Voting is supposed to be straightforward, yet ranked-choice ballots are profoundly confusing. I’ve talked with residents across the state, mainly older and more Republican types who are used to voting for one candidate.
Now they must fill in a complicated card with horizontal and vertical axes. It leads to errors. It may even be a barrier to voting in the first place.
Then there’s the deliberate vote-tossing. In ranked-choice voting, your ballot is thrown out if you don’t vote for enough candidates and there are enough rounds of counting that your vote would have been reshuffled.
In the 2018 Poliquin-Golden race, more than 8,000 ballots were discarded, and in other state elections, tens of thousands of ballots routinely meet the same fate. In one California race, more than half the ballots were ultimately thrown out.
Once you vote, you can’t check whether your ballot was counted all the way through. Given the centrality of “one person, one vote” to our electoral process, it’s hard not to see this as fundamentally un-American.
Some people may refuse to vote for specific candidates on principle. In 2020, for instance, many Maine voters refused to vote for both Joe Biden and Donald Trump, as ranked-choice voting demanded.
Had a third-party candidate gotten enough votes, people’s unwillingness to vote for a candidate they hated could have profoundly changed the race. It raises the question of whether ranked-choice voting is a kind of compelled speech.
None of these concerns matter to the Democrats who want to dominate Maine. They need Republicans’ help to get the latest ranked-choice voting measure through the Legislature, and in the past, some Republicans have jumped on the bandwagon.
In a largely blue state, some Republican lawmakers find the arguments for “consensus” and against “extremism” hard to argue with, and in the Senate, the bill will pass if only two Republicans flip.
If they don’t see through this ruse to rig elections in Democrats’ favor, hopefully, voters will. They should remember the insane election we had in Portland.
Madeline Malisa, a former chief counsel to former Maine Gov. Paul LePage, is senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability.