The State Where Your Second Choice Could Actually Win

In a little-noticed victory, Maine appears ready to move forward with innovative election reform—even as its politicians are dragged there kicking and screaming. Let’s hope Maine citizens do their duty and reaffirm their reform.

May 8, 2018

Cross-posted at The Daily Beast

In a little-noticed victory, Maine appears ready to move forward with innovative election reform—even as its politicians are dragged there kicking and screaming.

In 2016, the state’s voters enacted something called ranked choice voting. It is a radical rewrite of how elections happen, backed by voters after both Democratic and Republican legislators had refused to act. Heartwarming, yes? 

Unfortunately, after a state Supreme Court ruling, Republicans moved to block the reform from taking effect. They had quiet help from some Democratic officials as well. So voters turned to something called a “people’s veto”—in this case, a veto of a move to effectively veto the citizens referendum. 

On June 12, Maine will hold statewide primaries for governor and other offices using the new system. At the same time, voters will decide whether to move forward with the reform altogether. After a legal tangle, the secretary of state just published the new innovative ballots. It will either be a glorious reaffirmation of the people’s power to rule, or a fiasco. What’s at stake? In nearly all the United States, elections can be won by plurality, not a majority—and even if most people can’t stand the winner. We all tend to assume this is the only way to stage an election. In Maine, where there is an unusually strong tradition of independent candidates, eight out of the last ten governors were elected without a majority. 

Ranked choice voting aims to solve this by letting voters indicate who their second choice is, and their third choice as well. Candidate Smith gets my number one vote. But candidate Jones gets my number two vote. Another gets my number three vote. Others get none at all. If one of the candidates wins a majority among the number one votes, election over. If not, officials add the second choice votes, and if necessary the third choice votes, until there is a majority. So a candidate with broad second place support can prevail. A version of this is used to pick sports MVPs and by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (as in, “I’d like to thank the Academy”), and in cities such as Minneapolis and San Fancisco.

Got all that? Let me confess: I work on democracy reform and constitutional law every day. I’ve always had a hard time fully understanding ranked choice voting, let alone being able to explain it. I always thought it was too complicated for voters to understand. Isn’t it hard enough to get voters to the polls without adding more math? But maybe that’s wrong. Voters understood it enough to pass it by ballot measure. Some credit goes to the embarrassing two terms of Gov. Paul LePage, a rancorous Republican who narrowly won a GOP primary, then slipped into office in a three-way race. LePage’s cringeworthy antics make Donald Trump look dignified. He told the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” and said a legislative foe had “give[n] it to the people without Vaseline.”