This is the first in a three-part series opposing ranked-choice voting, Question 5 on the state ballot in November.
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” said Winston Churchill.
The famous British Prime Minister thought our democratic system of government was inherently and intentionally inefficient and lacked the streamlined nature of systems placing efficiency above the popular will. But its inefficiency gives the people time to consider the results of their votes.
The American democratic, electoral system is “presidential.” Unlike a parliament, where all candidates of several parties run by district with no general election of the head of government, the U.S. system has statewide elections, usually with a choice between candidates of only two parties.
The state-based system used by the federal government is also used in the states themselves – including Maine. The governor is elected statewide, while the Legislature is elected by district.
From 1820 until 1879, the system generally worked well in Maine. But that year, three candidates gained votes – Republican, Democratic and Greenback. None had a majority, throwing the election into the Legislature.
Disagreement centered on whether the old Legislature or the newly elected one should pick the governor. Conflict threatened, and Joshua Chamberlain, former governor and former Civil War general, was asked to separate the armed parties. Finally, the state Supreme Court decided and a Republican became governor.
To prevent such an embarrassing and dangerous situation from arising again, Maine amended the state constitution to allow for “choice by plurality of all the votes.”
Since 1974, Maine has experienced a series of multi-candidate races for governor, usually with three leading candidates and usually won by a plurality not a majority. Four former Democrats have run as independents and two were elected. Another came close, while the still another sharply reduced the incumbent’s vote
The frequent selection of the governor by plurality raised little or no concern until the 2010 election of Republican Paul LePage. The majority of voters supported either independent Eliot Cutler or Democrat Libby Mitchell. A fourth candidate also gained votes.
LePage again profited from an opposition vote split between Cutler and Democrat Mike Michaud, and was reelected in 2014.
Two conclusions seem clear from his elections. LePage would not have won if the opposition had not been split. And he benefitted from the tea party wave in 2010 and became one of the most controversial governors in state history, being for many an embarrassment to the state, because of remarks some thought racist.
The divided opposition had reason to regret their having failed to unite behind either Cutler or the Democrat. But some voters felt they should have to abandon their first choice in the name of the practical politics that could have stopped LePage.
As unusual as this situation might appear, it isn’t. While many developed countries use the parliamentary system, voters in these countries also understand that their district choice is a vote for the top executive.
No further away than Canada, there are three major parties that run candidates in districts all across the country. The party gaining the most votes – virtually always a plurality and much less than a majority – names the country’s prime minister and the premiers of its provinces.
There are no coalitions; the minority rules. The system works satisfactorily, because all parties are committed to making it work.
In the U.S., the plurality system, used nationally and in 39 states, works. Major new parties seldom arise, but third parties come and go. Remember in 1879, the third candidate came from the long-forgotten Greenback Party.
For a new party to establish itself as an alternative, it must win its way into the top two. The last new party to make the grade was the Republican Party in 1860. The ranked-choice system could inadvertently and easily create new parties and always prevent majority winners.
Ranked-choice voting, in which voters can also pick second and third choices, might have prevented LePage’s elections. But it would have been a revolutionary and unprecedented change in the American political system.
Today, voters must make their own choice whether they prefer to vote on principal or party, even if that means seeing their candidate lose, or to pick an acceptable alternative. Ranked-choice voting would promote even more split voting with the ultimate winner hidden behind a computer calculation.
The problem with the LePage elections may have been more with divided voter opinion than the voting system. You cannot fix one by changing the other.
Next: The problems with ranked-choice voting. Third: Alternatives.