Voting

Will Maine Be the First State Where Voters May Rank Their Choices?

Proposition could boost election chances for third-party candidates in some cases.

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ballot
Peterfactors | Dreamstime.com

What if you really didn't have to accept that there are only two valid choices for a particular race, and your third-party vote actually mattered more than as just a protest?

Maine voters may find out for themselves. On their ballot this November is Question 5, a ballot initiative that would institute ranked-choice voting for statewide positions like governor and for lawmakers on both the state and federal levels.

In a ranked vote system, voters are invited not to just check off the box for their favorite candidate; they're allowed to rank each candidate in order of preference. If the winning candidate doesn't get a majority of the votes, there's an "instant runoff." The candidate with the least votes is dumped from the race and the votes are counted again. On the ballots of those who voted for the least-popular candidate, their second choice is now counted as their vote. If again the winning candidate still doesn't get a majority of the votes, the cycle continues until the top-ranked candidate doesn't get just the most votes but a majority of votes.

No state here currently has such a voting system, but some cities do, and it's how Australia elects its lawmakers. Australia's complicated, preference-based voting system has resulted in several lawmakers who are members of smaller parties, including libertarian David Leyonhjelm. That is partly the intent of this system: To make it more possible for third-party candidates to break through the electoral duopoly, but only in situations where the majority of voters reject what the establishment offers.

The editorial board of the Portland Press Herald endorsed Question 5 last week with the awareness that an increasing number of voters are refusing to identify as Democrats or Republicans:

Our current system took shape when there were two strong parties that dominated the political process. Parties won elections by assembling coalitions and selecting candidates who had broad appeal. It was hard for fringe elements to break through.

But even though Maine's political parties have been in decline for decades, they still have an outsized influence on the process. Nominees selected by the small number of committed partisans who show up to vote in June have enormous institutional advantages on Election Day in November.

That puts the largest group of voters, those who are not active as either Democrats or Republicans, in a bind.

They have no say in the selection of a party nominee, but they can't vote for a third-party candidate without risking a vote for a "spoiler" who fragments opposition and gives an extreme candidate a path to victory.

What if, for example, you could vote for Gary Johnson as your first choice, but thought that Hillary Clinton would be much less dangerous as president than Donald Trump (or vice-versa)? You could make Johnson your first choice and Clinton your second. Thus, you'd be shutting down any arguments (or even your own fears) that a vote for a third-party candidate was ultimately helping Trump (or Clinton) win.

Heck, given the unpopularity of Clinton and Trump and the way polls are going, it is likely that the winner in November will get a plurality of the votes, not a majority. A ranked system significantly favors third-party candidates in situations where voters are really unhappy with what the establishment has to offer. It's easy to imagine Johnson becoming the second choice for a good chunk of voters, and then imagine what could happen next if neither Clinton nor Trump gets 51 percent of the majority vote.

It shouldn't come as a surprise then that Johnson supporter and former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is a big endorser of this kind of voting system. And he puts his activism where his mouth is: He's the chairman of the Board of FairVote, a nonprofit group pushing for more proportional voting systems such as Maine's proposed ranked-choice method.

The ranked-choice system comes with its own flaws. One study pointed out that even in a ranked-choice election, the winner may not actually have gotten the majority vote in the end. That's because voters don't have to rank all candidates. They can just rank the one (or ones) they legitimately want to vote for. If that candidate gets the least amount of votes and cut from the instant run-off, the vote becomes meaningless. So in the presidential example, if we had a four-way race including Green Party candidate Jill Stein, it's likely Stein would get the least amount of votes (based on current polls) and would be cut in the next round of vote tabulations. That means every vote that was only for Stein and did not rank other candidates would get tossed and would no longer "count." The outcome may sometimes be that the winner still really only got a plurality of the votes, not a majority. But it may well be a different person than who got the plurality of votes in a simple count.

But ultimately it's hard to explain why this is any different from the winner-takes-all system we have now. All votes for Stein are likely to be irrelevant in this election. Most votes for Johnson probably won't "matter" either, except maybe in a couple of pivotal states. At least in a ranked system, third-party voters could express their primary choice but also, if they wanted to, register a "lesser of two evils" vote for a Democrat and Republican and feel maybe slightly less disappointed in the election outcome.

Right now two polls show Question 5 receiving more support than opposition, but the most recent poll has a very high number of undecided voters (23 percent). This will be a ballot initiative to watch on Election Day.

Below, watch ReasonTV's interview with Novoselic in 2014 where he talks extensively about improving electoral representation:

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  1. This system would be best to start out on a congressional level. Something were an entire election system for a candidate can actually be moved over to one method, as opposed to just 1/50th of the system.

    Republicans and democrats would still win every election, because people who currently vote exclusively third party could add ranked votes for the main parties. It would give a good barometer for which direction major parties should move though. Is this third party idea actually popular or do they just have a lot of friends in the media. One issue candidate would probably become very popular in this type of system. Someone who doesn’t expect to win, but is just there to show an idea has a lot of support among the voting base.

    1. Something were an entire election system for a candidate can actually be moved over to one method, as opposed to just 1/50th of the system.

      -50 laboratories of freedom?

      1. Yeah, electing a local congressman is part of those laboratories, and a much more effective test of a system than 1/50th of a president.

        1. So persuade them otherwise.

    2. This emphasis on convoluted voting methods is totally misplaced. 95+% of voters don’t actually have a rationale for casting a single choice. Making them do more work is irrational. Third parties need to focus their efforts on local organizing – not on gimmicks.

      And the best policy wonky issue that would help third parties is increasing legislature size (reducing district size).

  2. Johnson supporter and former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is a big endorser of this kind of voting system.

    Oh! I was on the fence before, but now I saw this!!!!!

    *headdesk*

  3. This is what I love about democracy: the constant Innovacion. Maybe, very soon, you’ll be able to express preferences beyond a singular choice for a person to have ultimate power.

    Genius.

    1. “My fellow Earthicans, we enjoy so much freedom, it’s almost sickening. We’re free to chose which hand our sex-monitoring chip is implanted in. And if we don’t want to pay our taxes, why, we’re free to spend a week with the Pain Monster.”

      1. I bet you sit on your sex-monitoring chip for the stranger effect.

      2. Only one week with the Pain monster? That’s down one hour from what the other guy gave me! Oh, what a generous god-emperor we have!

  4. Gotta be honest, I don’t see how this voting system helps 3rd parties that much. Maybe I’m missing something, and would welcome feedback to the contrary, but it just seems to me that if I voted (I never do), and wrote (for example) 1) Johnson 2) McMuffin (McMullin? don’t know, don’t care) 3) SMOD 4) Nero 5) Mal Reynolds 6) Bullet between the eyes 7) Trump… my vote would ultimately just be for Trump (because all of the other ones would be eventually eliminated. Am I missing something?

    1. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even help *one* of the major parties.

    2. It would have made a difference in 1992.

      Perot would have won electoral votes.

      There are plenty of states that have run-off elections now (GA for example), and the winner of the first run doesnt win the runoff. Sometimes its due to turnout and etc, but sometimes and IRV system would produce the same results, as the 2nd choice was obvious.

      And it destroys the “wasted” vote argument as there is no reason not to vote Stein then Clinton, for example.

    3. It changes the motivations of the voter. There’s no need to fear voting for any particular candidate as a vote “thrown-away” because it was the only one you got.

      How many people are actually voting for Trump because they like him as a candidate? How many are voting for Clinton because they can’t stand Trump? Well, vote for who you actually want and if you must, hold your nose and put in a backup choice that you would accept if it meant keeping the other guy out.

      This kind of voting system would be even more useful in primaries. It’s harder to game primaries by voting in your opponent’s primary to pick the worst candidate most likely to be defeated by your real choice. More importantly, it’s also a good signal as to which party planks are actually important to the constituency. Republicans, for example, think it’s impossible to run a candidate who is pro-choice. That single issue is believed to dominate all the others. However, if the primary system were counted this way and candidates who were pro-choice happened to do very well or even win the nomination, they may have to face tough choices about which planks are actually essential. It’s as much a ranking system for the issues as it is for the candidates.

      1. Good point on primaries.

        Although primary might need to be more of an STV system since the delegates are split. But in a winner-take-all state, STV reduces to IRV.

        1. STV cannot be used in “winner-take-all” situations. It is specifically for distributing multiple seats proportionally by preference. eg 12 seats per state in the Australian Senate, or 5 seats per district in Tasmania’s House of Assembly.

          It could be used to distribute EC electors proportionally, I suppose. But I think there are simpler ways to do that.

          1. If you’re using a preferential voting system is a “winner-take-all” situation, then you are using “instant runoff” voting, not Single Transferable Vote.

    4. One thing it’s likely to do in polities where a 3 or more candidates are serious contenders for the office is to encourage candidates to move even more toward the middle of the road, to strive to be the acceptable #2 choice to the most.

  5. Sounds good, works bad. Gets closer to ‘true democracy’; mob rule.
    We have it in SF and Oakland. They are both one-party towns now and more than once each one has ended up with the same sort of smelly politicos we’re gonna get as the next president.

    1. I don’t see how it’s substantively closer to mob rule than the current system is. The one-party town nature in SF and Oakland has a lot more to do with the politics of its residents than it’s voting system.

      1. Pretty sure if you do a progression, you’ll find it doesn’t take too much of a majority of one party to make it the only option.
        SF was pretty much a one-party town, but now there are simply zero GOPers on the ballot; we have Pelosi and some pathetic D alternative for US rep candidates.

        1. ‘…some *even more* pathetic…’

        2. Open primary runoffs like that and LA is entirely different from IRV with one winner from each party from the primaries on the ballot.

        3. The open primary system is entirely different from IRV.

          1. Not entirely. They’re both runoff systems.

            1. But it’s not instant runoff.

    2. What you have in SF and Oakland (I thought all CA) is nothing like IRV.

      What you have, IIANM, is more akin to the Euro system of runoffs where there is an election and if no candidate gets a majority (50%+1 vote) there is a second election with the two top plurality winners.

      In any situation where there is a “first past the post” or “winner takes all” (IOW where ONE candidate is chosen to represent everyone in the district), you face the possibility that 50%-1 vote of the populace will be left with an unsatisfactory representative.

      1. Not exactly. For Senate, the House, State Senate, and Assembly, we have a top-two primary system. It is not possible to win the election in the primary, even with 99% of the vote; the top two always move on to November. Interestingly, in a few districts, Libertarians ran successful write-in campaigns and will be the only non-incumbent option.
        For local offices, local rules apply, whatever they may be.

  6. “and your third-party vote actually mattered more than as just a protest?”

    Well, with ballot access and funding a function of vote totals, it already does.

    But you knew that, right Shacky -baby?

    1. Shacky-baby? Ed and Scott are to be left out of Mike M’s renaming obsession.

      1. Cool, go tell Mike M.

        1. Deaf ears. I think he’s dumb and blind too.

          1. Deaf ears. I think he’s dumb and blind too.

            But he sure plays a mean pinball!

            1. +1 Mike M’s Uncle Ernie

  7. “No state here currently has such a voting system, but some cities do, and it’s how Australia elects its lawmakers. Australia’s complicated, preference-based voting system has resulted in several lawmakers who are members of smaller parties, including libertarian David Leyonhjelm. ”

    Australia uses a “preference-based voting system” to elect its senate but it’s not IRV. It’s STV, a type of proportional representation. Australia does use IRV for it’s house of represenatives, and the Liberal Democratic Party, Leyonhjelm’s party, has yet to win a seat

    1. While I was composing my response (below) you posted yours.

      I believe that the fact that the HoR has single member districts causes it to be more of a two-party house while using STV to elect several senators from each state causes the Senate to be a more diverse body.

      STV (or Hare-Clark) is also used to elect the Lower House of Tasmania’s Parliament. IIANM they were using it before Federation.

      1. I was wrong. Tassie did not change to Hare-Clark until 1906.

  8. Australia’s complicated, preference-based voting system has resulted in several lawmakers who are members of smaller parties, including libertarian David Leyonhjelm.

    A little clarification is called for here.

    The Hare-Clark system of proportional representation which is used to elect members of the Australian Senate (and thus Senator David Leyonhjelm) is not the same system being described in this post.

    The system described here is used to elect members of the Australian House of Representatives.

    1. A further note.

      While STV (or Hare-Clark) is complicated (I’ve been trying to figure it out for years), the “instant runoff” is quite simple.

  9. Arrow

    Just because discussions like this need to be complete.

  10. Actually, I believe that IRV would be a good replacement for the Electoral College under the following circumstances:

    1) No primaries, no parties*.

    2) One election, one time. Voting, electronically or by mail (so the geezers technically inept are not at a disadvantage, in a short time frame (less than two weeks.)

    3) Anyone can run. Put an end to ballot access issues.

    *Except insofar as free speech/free association is concerned. You can talk about your party, your party colleagues are free to campaign on your behalf but no grouping by party and no party identifier on the ballot.

  11. Gotta be honest, I don’t see how this voting system helps 3rd parties that much.

    It doesn’t help 3rd parties that much at all. What it can do is help people get a candidate that they’re willing to live with get elected.

    1. In the binary choice of “single member district”, “first past the post” or “winner takes all” you cannot get anything better than that.

  12. If the winning candidate doesn’t get a majority of the votes …

    Then there is no winning candidate. I assume you meant to say, “If no candidate gets a majority?”

    1. Alternatively: “If the leading candidate doesn’t get a majority of the votes…”

  13. The simplest fix is to require a majority to win. The plurality system used by most states is the reason voting your conscience can allow the greater evil to win.

  14. This is a terrible proposal. Oakland and San Francisco have tried it with strange results at best. They even had trouble figuring out how to count the votes. Perhaps the biggest argument against it is that it effectively gives proponents of the least popular candidates the chance to vote again when their crummy candidate loses big in the first count and their second, third or fourth choice is added to the count for subsequent counts. The people with the worst judgement get to decide the election after several recounts.

    1. I don’t think it should be up to you to decide that their votes are invalid because their first choice was someone you didn’t like.

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