Would Instant-Runoff Voting Cure What Ails American Politics?

AP Photo/Jim Mone

Election judge Pearline Crawford holds up a general election ballot featuring new ranked-choice voting at the polling place at Sabathani Community Center Tuesday, November 3, 2009 in Minneapolis. 

In the spring of 2013, a diverse group of activists, elected officials, and lawyers began meeting in a conference room in Augusta, Maine. The group consisted of Republicans, Democrats, and independents, all determined to solve a problem that had vexed Maine for decades: In nine of the state’s last 11 gubernatorial races, the winning candidate had failed to win a majority of voters’ support. Five governors had been elected with less than 40 percent of the vote—including the controversial Paul LePage, the state’s Republican governor since 2011.

Their solution: an election system known as ranked-choice (or instant-runoff) voting, which permits voters to cast ballots for more than one candidate at a time, and rank them in order of preference from first to last choice. Candidates receiving the fewest first-place rankings are eliminated, and their votes are redistributed to the second-choice favorite, and so on, until one candidate emerges as the majority winner. It is a system that is used in many democracies, including Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand, and in close to a dozen American cities, but remains unfamiliar to many voters in the United States.

On Election Day, Maine voters will decide on Question 5, a ballot initiative that would make Maine the first state to use ranked-choice voting for state legislative, statewide, and federal elections. It would be the first state ever to implement ranked-choice voting on such a broad scale, offering a test case of a system that advocates argue will give voters more electoral choices. If the Maine initiative succeeds, its backers say it could emerge as a national model.

LePage has proven a galvanizing force behind Question 5. First elected with just 37 percent of the vote in 2010, LePage owed his initial victory largely to a strong second-place finish by independent candidate Eliot Cutler. When Cutler ran again in 2014, House Democrat Mike Michaud threw his hat in the ring with the promise that he would make a stronger showing than LePage’s Democratic opponent, Libby Mitchell, had four years earlier. Michaud did nearly win, but Cutler again played the role of spoiler, diverting 8 percent of the vote from Michaud and enabling LePage to win re-election without a majority. 

“This issue of whether a candidate is viable has become a big part of the message of campaigns,” says former state Senator Dick Woodbury, who chairs the Question 5 campaign. “Michaud’s primary message was that he was the ‘only candidate who could beat LePage.’”

Although LePage is hugely unpopular, Question 5 supporters say it’s not just about the governor. Kyle Bailey, Question 5’s campaign manager, points out that the campaign counts many Republicans and LePage fans among its supporters. “People really feel like this is something they can do now to improve the process … whether they like or hate Paul LePage,” says Bailey. “We need all those folks across the political spectrum.” He argues that Question 5 should appeal to voters of all political stripes in an election marked by voter dissatisfaction with their choices.

During LePage’s tenure, the governing process in Augusta has ground to a halt, and the governor has issued more than 450 vetoes. As a result, Maine is resolving more questions via ballot initiative this year than ever before. Question 5 backers say this further underscores the need for an election overhaul that makes politics more conciliatory, by reducing incentives for negative campaigning, and forcing candidates to reach out to a broader pool of voters.

Ranked-choice voting has not traditionally had such broad appeal. It became a rallying cry for progressives in 2000, when then-Green Party nominee Ralph Nader arguably cost Al Gore the presidential election. Ranked choice was adopted in San Francisco in 2002, the same year then-state Senate Barack Obama introduced a bill allowing Illinois municipalities to adopt ranked choice for local elections. By 2014, when Maine advocates began gathering signatures for a statewide ballot measure, ranked choice was in use in 11 American cities, including Maine’s largest, Portland.

Skeptics of ranked choice voting object that it has not lived up to its hype in cities that have tried it. San Francisco politics remain contentious, the first Oakland mayor to be elected via ranked choice was defeated after a rocky single term, and voters in Burlington repealed ranked choice in 2010 after experimenting with it briefly.

Nevertheless, political scientists who have studied ranked choice say the system may work better with high-information races at the top of the ticket than with low-profile contests further down the ballot. Boise State political scientist Corey Cook studied San Francisco’s 2011 elections, and found that the percentage of voters who took the trouble to rank their preferences from first to last dropped off significantly for down-ballot races like sheriff and district attorney, but remained high in the more visible mayoral contest. Cook argues that voters are even more likely to rank and thoughtfully consider their preferences in races for governor or senate, where widespread media coverage and clear partisan divisions make the ideological distinctions between the candidates more clear.

“Local elections are the worst possible test cases for ranked-choice voting,” says Cook.

To succeed in Maine, Question 5 will need to win over an unpredictable state electorate with a strong independent streak. Maine has elected independent Angus King, first to the governorship and more recently to the U.S. Senate, and it is only one of two states where Ross Perot finished second in 1992. But while LePage’s unique governorship is playing a role in Question 5, so are national political trends. The ballot initiative is being considered against the backdrop of a presidential election that features two historically unpopular major party nominees. A host of newspaper editorials have urged Maine voters to adopt a system that will free them from having to choose between the “lesser of two evils.”

Candidates with diverse viewpoints deserve serious consideration without being dismissed as spoilers, and ranked choice offers voters the chance to express their sincere preferences without risking throwing the election to someone they dislike. Under ranked-choice voting, backers of the system say, third-party candidates such as Nader, Green party nominee Jill Stein, or Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson would not be “spoilers” because if they did not win a majority, their votes would be reallocated to the next-most-popular popular major party candidate.

“People think [we’re] saying people should vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson,” says Rob Richie, executive director of the national ranked choice advocacy group Fair Vote. “But we’re saying people are voting for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. Voting is supposed to be about affirming your positive values … we don’t have a voting system that accommodates that.”

Outside candidates hopping on the ranked-choice bandwagon are likely to be disappointed, in any case. Ranked choice has not generally made it easier for outsiders and insurgents to win in the cities where it is used. Question 5 proponents acknowledge that it is not a panacea, and caution that it should not be regarded as promoting any particular outcome. They argue that ranked choice is revolutionary not for who it purports to elect, but for its potential to reshape the broader political discourse. Ranked choice promises to change how candidates campaign and how candidates’ supporters perceive each other, its advocates argue, and helps ensure that candidates are elected on the merits of their ideas rather than their mere “electability.”

“This feels like the most important thing I’ve ever worked on because gridlock is so damaging,” said Woodbury. “If this can improve politics systematically, we’re going to impact every other aspect of our electoral system and reshape the political landscape.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to indicate that Maine was one of two states where Ross Perot finished second in 1992. 

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