A citizen initiative to implement ranked choice voting will be on Maine’s ballot in November 2016. It would apply ranked choice voting to Maine elections for governor, U.S. senator, U.S. representative, state senator, and state representative – including both the party primaries and general elections for these offices.
It’s hard to imagine a more well-suited state for this kind of reform, or a better time to advance it than we have in Maine right now. There are at least eight reasons that the timing is right.
First, Maine has a long history of independents participating in politics. Indeed two of our last six governors were independents. And our legislature has had multiple independents, serving in every legislative session for at least two decades.
With a regularity of multi-candidate races, including 10 of the last 11 elections for governor, Maine voters have a lot of experience with the complicating dynamics that accompany them.
Second, building on this base of historical experience, a series of recent high-profile divided races have highlighted for many Maine voters the need for this kind of reform.
In these recent races, so-called “spoiler” issues have altered the landscape of politics in visibly detrimental ways. “Strategic voting” was not only a personal dilemma for voters; it was overtly encouraged by competing candidate campaigns. Lesser known candidates – people who wanted to engage in the best of democracy by running for public office – were frequently urged to back out, or not to run at all to avoid dividing the vote.
In a number of recent races in Maine, spoiler effects, strategic voting concerns and negative advertising were as dominant in election dynamics as candidate qualifications and policy platforms.
Third, Maine has had a steady flow of election winners with less than a majority of votes. That includes nine of the last 11 races for governor, five of which were won with less than 40 percent of the vote.
Fourth, the general distaste for politics and politicians has risen overwhelmingly in Maine, as it has around the country. And while ranked choice voting can’t fix everything that’s deteriorated in politics, it is a positive and achievable step that Maine voters can actually accomplish now. Most notably, it discourages the negative advertising and personal attacks that taint current election cycles and disillusion voters.
With ranked choice voting, candidates need to reach out for second choice rankings among voters whose first choice may be someone else. Ranked choice voting rewards civility.
Fifth, the concept of ranked choice voting has been incubating in Maine for close to 15 years, both in the statehouse and among outside groups. It needed that time to build understanding, and to flesh out both the policy language and administrative details necessary for implementation. Importantly, it was introduced as legislation when there was an independent governor, a Democratic governor, and a Republican governor.
Maine’s League of Women Voters first endorsed the reform in 2011, and provided a reputable and nonpartisan organizational base for developing the current citizen initiative. The initiative is well positioned to advance now in large part because this incubation work was done very deliberatively over time.
Sixth, Maine already uses ranked choice voting to elect the mayor of its largest city, Portland, adding to public understanding of how ranked choice voting works. In these races, voter participation rose to unprecedented levels for off-year election cycles. And exit polling suggested not only the ease with which voters understood the ballot, but also their sense of greater empowerment in expressing their candidate preferences.Even the candidates noted their increased civility of interaction, and their changed approach to door-to-door campaigning. For example, they no longer skipped houses with lawn signs for an opponent, as they reached out for second choice rankings, as well as first choice rankings.
Seventh, Maine’s initiative would improve the democratic process of primaries as well as general elections, addressing some of the same problematic dynamics that arise in party primaries now.
Specifically, party primaries tend to attract even more candidates than general elections, and thus can be won with an even smaller minority of voters. In a 6-person party primary, for example, a candidate can win the party nomination with as little as 20 percent of primary voters.
Ranked choice voting assures that within parties, the nominated candidate has broad appeal across all of the party’s primary voters.
Eighth, the initiative already has a depth and breadth of grassroots supporters that draws from across the political spectrum in a way that citizen referenda rarely do. What we’ve accomplished in terms of endorsements from current and past officeholders, volunteer recruitment, articles in the press, and field work to educate voters has been beyond anything I imagined possible when we started.
This support will only strengthen as we undertake a continuing education effort over the next year to deepen voter familiarity and comfort with ranked choice voting. It’s hard to imagine a better landscape in which to advance this important reform.
Editor's Note: This article was written by Dick Woodbury, an economist and former Maine legislator. He served as an Independent State Representative from 2002-2008 and an Independent State Senator from 2010-2014. He is chairing Maine’s citizen initiative to implement ranked choice voting. To learn more about the initiative, go to www.rcvmaine.com.