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Be Careful What You Wish For: The Unintended Consequences of Electoral Reform.

California and Maine show how well-meaning efforts to encourage moderation can undermine political parties.

June 15, 2018


Long before polls pummeled polit­ics, prognost­ic­at­ors depended on other forms of predic­tion. A favor­ite indic­ator was the returns from Maine, which tradi­tion­ally voted in Septem­ber (rather than Novem­ber) because of fears that an early winter would make rural roads impass­able. This gave rise to the cliché, which was used as early as the 1880 elec­tion, “As goes Maine, so goes the nation.”

That line lasted until Septem­ber 1936 when Repub­lic­ans were heartened as Alf Landon won 55 percent of the vote in Maine against Frank­lin Roosevelt. But that Novem­ber, Landon won only one other state. James Farley, the Demo­cratic national chair­man, cracked, “As goes Maine, so goes Vermont.” 

For many campaign reformers, Maine returned this week to its age-old bell­wether role. Not only on Tues­day did Maine conduct its statewide primar­ies under a novel system in which candid­ates are ranked in order of pref­er­ence, but voters also approved the continu­ation of the exper­i­ment by 54-to-46 percent in a statewide refer­en­dum.

Ranked-choice voting (also called “instant runoffs”) is designed to encour­age cent­rism and, in many cases, inde­pend­ent candid­ates. In a multi-candid­ate elec­tion in which no contender wins a major­ity, the second-choice pref­er­ences of voters who backed candid­ates at the bottom of the pack are then tabu­lated.

As an example, here is how the system is currently work­ing as the ballots are slowly being coun­ted in Tues­day’s seven-way Maine Demo­cratic gubernat­orial primary in which no candid­ate won more than one-third of the initial vote:

The last-place candid­ate, who attrac­ted fewer than 2,000 votes, is being dropped and the second choices of her support­ers are being alloc­ated to the other candid­ates. Then the process is repeated with the fifth-place finisher (and so on) until a remain­ing candid­ate hits the 50-percent threshold.

The New York Times endorsed Maine’s instant run-off in an edit­or­ial that argued that the system “encour­ages candid­ates to reach out to as many voters as possible, which ranked-choice advoc­ates say gener­ates more moder­ate politi­cians and policies that more accur­ately reflect what most people want.”

Well, maybe.

Maine’s enthu­si­asm for ranked-choice voting flows directly from public ire towards Paul LePage, the state’s bombastic right-wing Repub­lican governor, who won two terms without ever garner­ing a major­ity. Might-have-been fantas­ies about the 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion also power support­ers of instant run-offs.

Nobel-Prize-winning econom­ists Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen in an Op-Ed in the New York Times stress, “Both Bernie Sanders (the darling of liberal young people) and Michael Bloomberg (suppor­ted by numer­ous moder­ates) might have made an attract­ive candid­ate as an inde­pend­ent.” But, as the authors correctly point out, Bloomberg and Sanders were deterred by the impossib­il­ity of winning as an inde­pend­ent and the right­ful fears of split­ting the anti-Trump vote.

This prob­lem would instantly disap­pear under vari­ous forms of instant runoffs since voters could have ranked Clin­ton and Bloomberg (in any order) as their top two choices in the confid­ence that there would be no wasted votes that would increase Trump’s chances of victory.

There is an under-appre­ci­ated danger, though, in trying to rejig­ger the elect­oral system in hopes of deter­ring future Trumps and LePages. Not only is the road to reform paved with unanti­cip­ated consequences, but also arti­fi­cial efforts to encour­age moder­a­tion under­mine polit­ical parties.

Instant run-offs—as the Bloomberg example illus­trates—­would prob­ably lead to the prolif­er­a­tion of inde­pend­ent candid­ates, espe­cially self-funders. For the super-wealthy with polit­ical ambi­tions, there would no longer be a need to chance the vagar­ies of party primar­ies and endorse­ments. Instead, they could run as inde­pend­ents and hope that massive TV spend­ing and ranked-choice voting would provide the ticket to victory in Novem­ber.

For almost 150 years, since the rise of Tammany Hall and other urban polit­ical machines, good-govern­ment advoc­ates have disdained partis­an­ship. While the original target of the goo-goos was Boss-Tweed-style urban corrup­tion, today the arch villain has become polit­ical polar­iz­a­tion. How glor­i­ous it would be, reformers argue, if both parties could return to an era of deal-cutting moder­a­tion.

But, at the moment, only one polit­ical party has zoomed off the rails: the Repub­lic­ans. While the Demo­crats have had their eras of left-wing exuber­ance (the 1972 George McGov­ern campaign and their three land­slide defeats in the 1980s), the party has avoided being captured by the equi­val­ent of a Tea Party move­ment. Nor have the Demo­crats ever been in thrall to a leader who radi­ates contempt for the norms of a free soci­ety and the rituals of rational policy-making.

There is a risk in trying to solve what turns out to be a short-term prob­lem by tinker­ing with the mech­an­isms of polit­ics. That is what Cali­for­nia illus­trates with its ill-conceived “jungle primary” in which the top two finish­er­s—regard­less of party—op­pose each other on the Novem­ber ballot.

In 2009, Cali­for­nia seemed ungov­ern­able as Arnold Schwar­zeneg­ger, the belea­guered moder­ate governor, was desper­ately trying to keep the state afloat amid the depths of the Great Reces­sion. With the legis­lature grid­locked over the budget, the governor won the pivotal vote of a GOP senate senator by agree­ing to an unusual demand—a statewide vote on dramat­ic­ally upend­ing the state’s primary system.

Propos­i­tion 14, as it became known, was approved by 54 percent of the voters in June 2010 with the support of Schwar­zeneg­ger. The Los Angeles Times edit­or­i­al­ized for the reform using argu­ments on behalf of moder­a­tion that seem eerily similar to those currently deployed on behalf of ranked-choice voting: “Today’s primary system, as it exists in Cali­for­nia, creates few incent­ives for liber­als and conser­vat­ives to work with each other. All party primar­ies tend to bring out commit­ted voters who gener­ally are more extreme than the main­stream of their parties.”

Eight years later, Cali­for­nia polit­ics are unre­cog­niz­able for reas­ons that have scant connec­tion to the passage of Propos­i­tion 14. The success­ful two-term governor­ship of Demo­crat Jerry Brown (Schwar­zeneg­ger’s successor) combined with the collapse of the statewide Repub­lican Party because of its hard-right tilt, showed that Cali­for­nia could be tamed after all—by tradi­tional party polit­ics.

But the hostil­ity to partis­an­ship embed­ded in Cali­for­ni­a’s top-two system almost had disastrous consequences for the Demo­cratic chances of winning back the House.

So many Demo­crats filed for Congress in the June 5 primary that it created a major risk that the vote would splinter so dramat­ic­ally that two Repub­lic­ans would end up oppos­ing each other in key districts in Novem­ber. Only a massive inter­ven­tion by national Demo­crats preven­ted the party from being shut out in one or more winnable Cali­for­nia House races. The Repub­lic­ans were not so adept: The GOP will not have a candid­ate on the ballot for the Senate or lieu­ten­ant governor in Novem­ber.

Perhaps voters in the north­east­ern corner of Amer­ica will take their Maine chance and turn ranked-choice voting into a model for the nation. But the more likely outcome is that this well-inten­tioned effort will serve as a reminder that elect­oral reform should buttress the polit­ical parties rather than try to batter them into irrel­ev­ance.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.


(Image: iStock)