Should we abandon plurality elections?

Last week, I wrote that increasingly major elections are won by pluralities – winners having the most votes – rather than majorities – winners having more than half the votes.

The column drew many thoughtful responses, which prompt further consideration of the problem of plurality winners.

The threshold question is whether we ought to require majority winners. Is it right that a person might win a three-way election with 34 percent of the vote? Is that the same problem as when a candidate fails to gain 50 percent, because of a fringe candidate who gets, say, three percent?

The most frequent answer is that both risks are acceptable. Throughout American history, the system known as “first past the post” has been used. With the use of single-member districts, this system promotes two candidate races. People understand that voting for a third party candidate could amount to a vote for the winner.

But there have always been some multi-candidate races, and people have accepted results when the winner did not receive a majority. Because some people wish to make a statement with their votes, rather than picking a winner, there will always be multi-candidate races.

So most likely, nothing needs to be done.

Some comments suggest I got the intentions of the Founding Fathers wrong.

In my view, the acceptance of plurality winners is probably not what the Founding Fathers intended. In The Federalist, those arguing for the Constitution opposed the creation of “factions,” hoping instead for general accord.

But they had to admit that, if there were elections, there were likely to be two sides. During the debate on the Constitution itself, there were already two organized and opposing groups – Federalists and Anti-Federalists – of almost equal strength.

But I concede they saw multi-candidate races for the First Congress, whatever their preferences.

The presumption of two parties and two candidates has carried over until today. For example, look at the composition of the Federal Election Commission with its equal representation of two parties.

If people reject plurality winners and want only majority winners, the only way to do that is to have runoff elections with two candidates.

Ranked choice voting cannot produce that result, because voters may end up electing “everybody’s second choice,” even though that candidate received fewer first place votes than another candidate.

While ranked choice allows for an artificial runoff and costs less than running a real runoff, it lacks the character of a political campaign in which candidates try to convince voters, some of whom did not even participate the first time around, to support them.

In fact, ranked voting is much like a plurality election in which voters supporting weaker candidates do not seem to participate in the choice between the two front-runners. In ranked voting, they are similarly simply deleted if they did not support one of the two front-runners.

As noted earlier, in the Portland ranked voting contest, 18 percent of the voters took no part in the ultimate choice. Their votes were thrown away.

If we want those people to participate in the final choice, then a real runoff is necessary.

It seems clear that the discussion of making Maine the first state to use ranked voting for major elections is based on the last two gubernatorial elections.

The theory is that, if voters for Democrat Libby Mitchell in 2010 had been allowed to express a second choice, independent Eliot Cutler would have been elected. Republican Paul LePage, the plurality winner, would have been defeated.

In 2014, if voters for Cutler had been given a second choice, they might have voted for him with a second choice for Democrat Mike Michaud with LePage the loser. In fact, Cutler may have believed that, with that kind of voting, he would have finished second and won with Michaud’s second choice votes.

Cutler voters might have helped make that possible by refraining from casting second choice votes for anybody.

On the other hand, understanding he was sure to lose, Cutler could have thrown his support to Michaud. Some Cutler voters reacted to his “long shot’ statement; perhaps more would have reacted to an outright withdrawal.

Even if diehard Cutler supporters had declined to vote or voted for him on principle, they would have known they were no longer taking part in the real choice, and the winner would have had a majority of the voters trying to elect a governor.

Ranked choice voting is a poor substitute for real democracy. If we decide we want only majority winners, they should be real winners of real elections. Just because ranked voting costs less than a runoff is not good enough to abandon majority rule.

However, it’s doubtful we insist on majority winners. Americans have always accepted plurality winners and are likely to continue to do so.

In addition to my weekly post based on my newspaper column, I add an occasional mid-week post on a current issue.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.