Ranked Choice Voting to appear on Maine ballot in 2016, pending petition certification

In 2016, Maine voters will get to vote on how they vote, as the League of Women Voters – Maine announced that they had collected enough signatures to trigger a referendum on ranked choice voting (RCV). Assuming enough of the signatures are certified, the issue will appear on the statewide ballot in 2016. The proposed referendum reads as follows:

This initiated bill provides ranked-choice voting for the offices of United States Senator, United States Representative to Congress, Governor, State Senator and State Representative for elections held on or after January 1, 2018. Ranked-choice voting is a method of casting and tabulating votes in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, tabulation proceeds in rounds in which last-place candidates are defeated and the candidate with the most votes in the final round is elected.

RCV, sometimes referred to as instant runoff voting, is a system by which voters rank all of their options in a given election, rather than simply indicating their first choice. After all ballots are cast, they are then counted in rounds. Voters whose first-choice candidate receives the lowest share of first-choice ballots have their ballots redistributed to the second choice candidate in the second, and so on, until someone has a majority.

The resulting system requires the eventual winner to receive a majority of ballots cast, unlike our current winner-take-all system. While our current system grants victory to the candidate with a majority in two-candidate races, it only requires a plurality in races with three or more candidates like, say, the last three gubernatorial races in Maine, the last two of which were won by current Maine governor and angry old man Paul LePage.

Paul LePage, via Wikimedia Commons

Maine Governor Paul LePage, via Wikimedia Commons

LePage won both of his elections for the state’s highest office despite never attaining majority support. He was the first choice of 48 percent of Maine’s voters in 2014 and just 38 percent in 2010. Had Maine used RCV in 2010, he may never have become governor, and the clown show that he turned Maine politics into would never have taken place.

But LePage is no outlier for having been elected without a majority. As LWV – Maine noted in their blog post outlining their support for RCV, only twice since 1974 has Maine elected a governor with more than 50 percent of the vote, and both of those instances were for the re-election of an incumbent.

The other small-d democratic benefit that RCV entails it is that it allows voters to register disapproval. Especially for voters who are dissatisfied with one major party candidate but absolutely loathe the other, RCV allows their ballot to represent an ineffectual protest vote for a minor party candidate and a far more effectual protest vote against a major party one. Had it been in effect in 2000, Floridians could have voted for Ralph Nader and against George Bush, negating one (of many) reasons that Bush was awarded the state’s electoral votes.

It will be interesting to see how far the campaign to elect statewide offices in Maine via RCV goes. Voters generally aren’t acutely aware of process issues like ballot format, but in a state like Maine with highly-active third parties (again, note the frequency with which independent candidates deny the winning candidate a majority in the state), they may be more likely than any other state to go for such a measure.

And they should.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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