Maine's solution to toxic politics is as easy as 1, 2, 3

Maine voters will consider an initiative that would allow them to rank their favorite candidates in future elections. It's seen as a way to force politicians out of their partisan comfort zones. But there could be unintended consequences. 

Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor
Brianna Twofoot (left) and Tim Boulette talk about ranked-choice voting on Exchange Street in Portland, Maine, on Oct. 21.

There weren’t many people on Exchange Street on a dreary, wet Saturday here, but among those who were, the prospect of a dissatisfying Election Day loomed over them as much as the lowering gray clouds above.

It isn’t just the choice between two unpopular presidential candidates.

To Seth Harkness, it’s about Gov. Paul LePage, who he says has acted like a political bully.

To Brianna Twofoot, it’s that votes for third-party candidates seem like votes thrown away – no small concern in a state that has elected an independent to the United States Senate and went strongly for the Senate’s other independent, Bernie Sanders, in the recent Democratic presidential primary.

So this Tuesday, both say they will vote to revolutionize how the state votes in the future.

It’s called ranked-choice voting, and if the ballot initiative passes, it would enable any voter to rank all the candidates in a race. If no one gets a majority, the votes of the last-place candidate would be apportioned out to the higher finishers according to second-place rankings – and so on – until someone wins.

The idea is that voters can vote for third-party candidates, knowing that they’ll still have a say if their candidate doesn’t win. Moreover, candidates will need to compete for second-place votes – making them more likely to be less partisan.

“One of the things I like about the idea is I think it makes it more likely that people are consenting to who leads them,” says Ms. Twofoot. “The idea of consistent two parties is, I think, breaking down.”

In Minneapolis, ranked-choice voting made mayoral candidates so eager to reach across party lines that it turned the election into “a kindergarten cupcake contest” that was “peculiarly positive,” according to one local political scientist.

But others worry that as a ballot gets more complicated, fewer people will vote. And there is a question about whether the idea runs afoul of the state constitution.

For supporters, however, it is an attempt to tweak a system they are increasingly seeing as broken.

“I hear a lot of people say, ‘I don’t like the two-party system, it doesn’t work any more,’ ” says Rose Mahoney, another Portlander on Exchange Street, referencing the campaigns of Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, and Senator Sanders.

“I think it’s a richer result if you actually elect somebody by a majority, and you take into consideration people’s second choice and third choice.”

Quieting 'loud voices'

The system is already in place in about a dozen cities – including Portland, where it has been used for the past two mayoral elections without any major issue.

In the words of FairVote, a nonpartisan nonprofit group that advocates for ranked-choice voting around the country, it “makes democracy more fair and more functional.”

But for many Mainers, this issue is more visceral.

“The first thing I think of is [Governor] LePage, really,” says Mr. Harkness. “You think about ranked-choice voting, and that’s the best argument for it that I could think of.”

Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor
Seth and Rachel Harkness walk down Exchange Street in Portland, Maine.

LePage was elected with 37.6 percent of the vote in 2010 and reelected four years later with 48.2 percent. In his two terms, critics say, he has almost singlehandedly introduced partisan gridlock and acrimony to a state once considered a paragon of polite and moderate politics.

The problem is bigger and older than LePage, say others. Since 1970, only two Maine governors have been elected with a majority of the vote. But the level of hostility LePage has provoked appears to have brought the issue to a head.

“Even LePage supporters have to acknowledge that he represents a new era in Maine politics, one that is more openly partisan and hostile to compromise than any we have ever seen,” wrote the editorial board of the Portland Press-Herald in a column endorsing a “yes” on Question 5.

“Under the current system, loud voices are noticed and the ability to bring people together undervalued,” it added. “This reform represents a bold change, but it’s a change that would bring back something we’ve lost – consensus politics in a time of political fragmentation.”

Concerns about voter turnout

Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, has researched the ranked-choice voting in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Candidates in the most recent mayoral elections ran “these remarkably positive, upbeat campaigns … pulling punches because they didn’t want to alienate [other] candidates’ supporters and move out of a chance of second- and third-place votes,” he says.

Analyzing the 2014 elections in 13 Minneapolis wards, however, he also found some concerning outcomes. Ranked-choice voting didn’t narrow the gap in participation between affluent and white voters, who traditionally vote at higher rates, and poor and minority voters. Perhaps of greater concern, voters in poorer and majority-minority wards filled out ballots wrong or didn’t list their full preferences more frequently than voters in more affluent and low-minority wards.

“The irony here is ranked-choice voting promises to expand democracy, but its practice may actually widen disparities across income levels and race,” says Professor Jacobs. “To move from a municipality to a state may well kind of expand the scope of those disparities.”

Others worry that ranked-choice voting could drive down turnout overall.

“The more complicated you make voting, the less likely people are going to be to vote, and ranked-choice voting undoubtedly makes it more complicated,” says Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine in Orono.

Maine problems

Maine could have its own peculiar issues, too.

“We often have elections dependent on the safe transferal of wooden boxes in small towns at one o’clock in the morning,” says Lance Dutson, a longtime Republican political operative in Maine.” Ranked-choice voting “would add layers of stress to our voting system that I don’t think we could handle right now.”

It might even be unconstitutional. In March, state Attorney General Janet Mills wrote that the multiple rounds of vote-counting could necessitate “a fundamental change to the process of determining elections in Maine [that] does not appear to be consistent with Maine’s Constitution.”

A legal challenge would be almost inevitable, says Mr. Dutson.

“The first person that loses in a ranked-choice voting contest is going to challenge the constitutionality of the system,” he adds. “At some point this is going to have to be adjudicated.”

Along Exchange Street, teeming with boutique shops and quaint red-brick storefronts, most people seem to favor the system as a pushback against political trends that helped LePage to the governor’s mansion and have provided what many see as unsatisfying choices for the White House.

But Professor Brewer strikes a note of caution. “It’s not a cure-all for everything that ails American democracy.”

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