Ranked-choice Voting Is…

By Rob Sneddon


[T]he name stinks. If proponents and opponents of Maine’s “ranked-choice voting” ballot initiative, co-sponsored by representative Diane Russell and former state senator Richard Woodbury, agree on nothing else, they ought to agree on that. The alternative name, “instant-runoff voting,” is even worse. It sounds like it would be more appropriate for sending home contestants on American Idol than for sending candidates to Augusta.

This is not, to be clear, a condemnation of ranked-choice voting (RCV) as a process. It is simply an acknowledgement that the name doesn’t provide an obvious indication of how that process works. And to expect Mainers to get behind a new statewide election system when they don’t immediately grasp how it works — or how it might not work — is asking a lot.

Woodbury, an independent from Yarmouth who chose not to seek reelection last fall in part so he could devote more attention to the RCV initiative, concedes as much. “I think it’s one of those things that potentially needs some time to incubate,” Woodbury says, “to think about how it would work in practice.”

Maine’s Committee for Ranked Choice Voting has set a target date of 2018 for implementing the new system. RCV would replace plurality voting as the method for choosing the governor as well as Maine’s state and federal legislators.

Incidentally, the name “plurality voting” stinks too. But plurality voting has an advantage: Mainers might not be able to define “plurality voting,” but they know what it is. Paul LePage, Mike Michaud, Eliot Cutler. Pick one. Add ’em all up. Candidate with the most votes wins. That was the case last November, when LePage was reelected with 48.2 percent of the vote. It was the case in 2010, when LePage won a three-way race with 37.6 percent of the vote. And it was the case in another three-way race in 2006, when Democrat John Baldacci was reelected with 38 percent of the vote.

“The current system works just fine if you have two candidates,” Woodbury says. But in Maine, the two-horse governor’s race has become the exception rather than the rule. Since 1982, only one governor has won with an outright majority: independent Angus King, who received 58.6 percent of the vote in 1998. “As soon as you introduce a third candidate, that totally changes the character of the campaigns,” Woodbury says. “And I think it was during this [2014] gubernatorial campaign where the need for a reformed system became so much clearer. All the conversation was about, ‘Is there a spoiler in the race? Are we dividing the vote? Are we going to have a minority winner?’ There was more conversation about strategic voting than about Maine issues, about visions for the future — about who would actually make a good governor. And because of how clearly that seemed to influence the governor’s race, that led a group of us to say that now is a particularly opportune time to advance [RCV], while people are acutely aware of why reforms are needed.”

“The current system works just fine if you have two candidates,” Woodbury says. But in Maine, the two-horse governor’s race has become the exception rather than the rule.

A runoff vote all but guarantees a majority winner in the final round (barring the slim possibility of a tie). For instance, Louisiana uses a runoff system, and in last November’s Senate race there, tea party candidate Rob Maness got 13.7 percent of the vote, enough to prevent either Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu (42 percent) or Republican challenger Bill Cassidy (40.9 percent) from reaching a majority. So there was a runoff election in December, pitting Landrieu and Cassidy (the top two vote-getters) head to head. This not only delayed the outcome but also added to the cost — all to formalize a foregone conclusion. In the runoff, most displaced tea party voters swung to the Republican, giving Cassidy a victory that surprised no one.

Instant-runoff — or ranked-choice — voting essentially accomplishes the same result without that second step. Had Louisiana used RCV, voters would have had the option of ranking the three candidates on the initial ballot in order of preference. A high percentage of Maness’s tea party supporters likely would have listed Cassidy as their second choice. When the tea party candidate finished third in the first round, and neither of the other candidates received a majority, the “instant runoff” would have kicked in. All of the first-choice ballots for Maness would have defaulted to those voters’ second choice — likely the Republican — and voila! The Republican would not only have overtaken the Dem, he would also have obtained the majority support that the law requires.

At this point in the explanation, people tend to diverge into one of two camps:

1) Ah, I get it!
2) Now, wait a minute . . .

For those in the second camp, the primary hang-up is that, in an attempt to restore one bedrock principle of American democracy — majority rule — ranked-choice voting appears to tread on another — one person, one vote.

Not so, says Rob Richie of FairVote.org, a Maryland-based organization that supports the Maine RCV initiative. “The analogy I use is that it’s like ordering ice cream,” Richie says. “If mint chocolate chip is your first choice and they don’t have it, then you might order plain chocolate chip instead. But you still end up with just one ice cream cone, not two.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Another is to say that choosing a leader ought to require greater conviction than picking a cone at Gifford’s.

[R]anked-choice voting isn’t new. Ireland has used it since 1922. It’s also used in Australia, London, and several U.S. cities, including Minneapolis and St.Paul; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Oakland, California. It’s even used to select the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards.

And it’s been used once already in Maine. In 2011, Portland voters approved a referendum to abandon a system in which city councilors selected a mayor from among themselves in favor of citywide ranked-choice vote. That first attempt provided an embarrassment of candidates — 15 of them. Democrat Michael Brennan won both the first round, with 28 percent of the vote, and the final round, with 56 percent.

But was he truly a majority winner? That depends on how you interpret the results. Not every ballot ranked all 15 candidates — some voters ranked only their three or four favorites. So each round of the instant runoff produced some “exhausted ballots” — that is, ballots in which none of the choices carried over. The simplest example would be if you listed as your first and only choice the candidate who came in 15th place. After round one, your vote would no longer have counted.

So although Brennan defeated former state senator Ethan Strimling 9,061 to 7,173 in the final round, Brennan’s total still represented less than half the total ballots cast on election day since many voters simply didn’t include him among their ranked choices.

Ranked-choice voting is even used to select the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards

RCV proponents argue that parsing results this way misses the point. The whole idea of RCV, proponents say, is to shift the focus from the outcome to the process — and they contend the Portland election succeeded in doing so. “With ranked-choice voting, candidates are very careful about negative campaigning,” Brennan told FairVote Voices, “because they’re not only trying to get a number-one vote, they’re trying to get a number-two vote or a number-three vote. So you don’t spend a whole lot of time saying things about your opponent that might be construed as being negative.”

RCV proponents say that the most impressive figure to come out of the Portland race was the 3,000 people who ranked all 15 candidates — which they contend speaks to the high level of voter engagement. But isn’t it possible that some of those voters just misunderstood the instructions? Maybe they thought they had to rank all 15 candidates?

Representative Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat who joined Woodbury in a bipartisan push for RCV, doesn’t think so. “I think a lot of people just like to finish what they start,” she says.

Besides, Russell adds, “Ranked-choice voting makes elections fun. You get this exchange of ideas without all the [rancor] you get in a winner-take-all race.”

The whole idea of RCV, proponents say, is to shift the focus from the outcome to the process.

The League of Women Voters of Maine takes that assertion a step further, declaring on its website: “RCV allows voters to vote for their favorite candidate without fear of helping elect their least favorite candidate.”

Various math models undermine this claim. And the fact that mathematicians are already poking around RCV, looking for weak spots, raises another point: The analytics movement isn’t going away. RCV won’t curb the surfeit of polling data during election season — it will simply change the nature of it. Instead of asking people who they intend to vote for, pollsters will ask prospective voters to list their first, second, and third choices, then adjust their “horse race” projections accordingly. Wonks will fill the airwaves, introducing new buzz words like “favorite betrayal” and “no-show paradox” as they gleefully inform voters of the head-spinning number of ways by which they could inadvertently help elect the candidate they fear the most.

And the worst part is, they’ll be right.

“I get really impatient with these [hypothetical] scenarios,” says Richie. “It’s like these statisticians who can prove that a presidential candidate can win in the Electoral College with [what amounts to] 0 percent of the popular vote. Yes, it’s theoretically possible, but it’s never going to happen.”

Maybe not in that extreme case. But RCV elections have produced controversial outcomes that left some voters feeling befuddled, if not betrayed. Take the 2009 mayoral election in Burlington, Vermont. Republican Kurt Wright won a plurality in the first round (32.9 percent), but lost to the first-round runner-up, Vermont Progressive Party incumbent Bob Kiss, in instant runoff. On one level, this represented success: 67% of voters preferred someone other than Wright, who may have won if Kiss and a Democrat had split the left-leaning vote in a plurality race.

But after analyzing the results, Jack Gierzynski, a professor in the University of Vermont’s Department of Political Science, determined that a majority of voters would have preferred the third-place finisher, Democrat Andy Montroll, over Kiss or Wright in a two-way race with either of them. Furthermore, conservatives whose fear of Progressive Kiss outweighed their support for the Republican would actually have been better off making the Democrat their first choice, giving the Dem enough votes to make the runoff instead of Kiss. Concluded Gierzynski, “The notion that [RCV] eliminates strategic voting just does not stand up to the reality.”

The following year, Burlington voters repealed RCV. Richie blames this on extenuating circumstances: the Kiss administration was rocked by an accounting scandal six months after the vote. So a case can be made that, in voting to repeal RCV, Burlington voters were actually expressing displeasure with Kiss — RCV was just the horse he rode in on.

But if it’s unfair to blame the system when an RCV election produces a controversial result, it’s also unreasonable to give the system too much credit when an RCV election goes swimmingly. The 2011 Portland mayor’s race is a case in point. Brennan won every round of the RCV runoff — as he likely would have won in a traditional plurality race. Still, it’s naïve to suggest that every election would be as clear-cut. At some point, Maine could have an RCV outcome just as messy as the 2009 Burlington mayor’s race. Again, that’s not to say Maine shouldn’t switch to RCV. Just that Mainers ought to fully understand the potential ramifications first.

[R]CV proponents have a tough road ahead. Getting the required 61,000 signatures to bring the RCV initiative to a referendum vote is the easy part. Convincing a majority of Mainers to scrap the current voting system will be much harder. And even if RCV gets that far, it will still have to clear a significant hurdle. If Maine’s Supreme Court were to declare RCV unconstitutional — a strong possibility, given that the constitution specifies plurality voting in state elections — proponents would then have to push for an amendment. That would require approval by two-thirds of both houses before the amendment would be put to a public vote.

The plurality provision in Maine’s constitution grew out of some real ugliness in Augusta. Originally, the constitution called for a majority result in gubernatorial elections. If there was no majority winner, the legislature would settle things. This wasn’t an issue until 1879. In a three-way governor’s race, the Greenback Party prevented either incumbent Alonzo Garcelon, a Democrat, or Republican challenger Daniel Davis from reaching an outright majority. The stakes were high. Republicans had just taken control of both houses, but Garcelon refused to accept those results, accusing the Republicans of bribery and election fraud.

The GOP and the Dems each mustered armies of support — literal ones. There was a genuine possibility that the two sides would start shooting at each other, right there at the State House. So Garcelon called in the militia, led by one Joshua Chamberlain — who, after distinguishing himself in the War Between the States, was now asked to defuse the threat of civil war within his own state.

He succeeded. Maine’s Supreme Court ruled that the election results would stand. Republicans took both the House and Senate and installed Davis as governor. And in 1880, an amendment was enacted “so as to Elect the Governor by a Plurality, Instead of a Majority, of Votes.”

Ironically, plurality voting became Maine’s system of choice for the same reason that RCV proponents now want to get rid of it: a particularly nasty governor’s race.


How Ranked-Choice Voting Could Rankle Voters

 By Rob Sneddon

Advocates of ranked-choice voting say one of its biggest benefits is that it allows you to vote your conscience, and if other voters don’t agree with you, you can throw your support to your second choice. That might suggest that people of certain political persuasions can strategize to defeat their least-favorite candidate, but it is possible for such a game plan to backfire.

Take a hypothetical example involving a conservative Maine district with a couple thousand registered voters. Three solid candidates emerge in the race for state representative: a Democrat, a Republican, and a tea party independent. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume every voter hews to ideological lines: Republican supporters list the tea party candidate second, and tea party supporters list the Republican candidate second, collectively trying to block the Democrat. All Democrats list the Democratic candidate first. And, as a hedge against the tea partier’s far-right platform, they list the Republican second.

It’s an easy call for the Dems. Because the odds are against a Democrat winning in a conservative district, they might as well take advantage of RCV and use their second choice to support what they see as the lesser of two evils.

OK, so the inevitable polls show that, of 1,300 projected voters, the tea partier leads with around 600 votes, the Republican is second with 400, and the Democrat is third with 300.

Democrats respond with a collective Yikes! And they mount an 11th-hour get-out-the-vote effort. They acknowledge that victory appears to be a lost cause — but at least they can try to stop that dreaded tea partier. Sufficiently alarmed, an additional 200 Dems turn out on election day, and most of them toe the party line: Democrat first, Republican second. And in so doing, they swing the race from the Republican to the tea partier.

Here’s why: If only the projected 1,300 voters had turned out, the Democrat would have lost the first round, and (let’s assume) all 300 second-place votes would have defaulted to the Republican, giving him enough to defeat the tea partier, 700–600. But those extra 200 Dems on election day gave the Democrat enough votes to overtake the Republican in the first round, 500–400. Thus, a large number of those 400 Republican votes default to the voter’s second choice — likely, the tea partier — enabling the tea party candidate to trounce the Democrat in the final round, 1,000–500.

Nothing about that end result is unjust, of course — the candidate with the most voter support wins in either case. And in the latter case, the winner would be a candidate who might never have had a chance in a plurality vote, for fear of vote-splitting. But the scenario does show that attempts to vote strategically under RCV can be maddeningly complex.