Ranked-choice voting: dangerous shortcut, far from American tradition

This is second in a three-part series opposing ranked-choice voting, Question 5 on the state ballot in November.

What’s wrong with ranked-choice voting?  Shouldn’t voters be able to express their second and lower choices in a single election?

These questions get right at the heart of the election process.  Elections take place after political campaigns in which candidates make the case for themselves and try to highlight their opponents’ weaknesses.

Each election is a distinct political event, and no two are exactly alike.  Candidates carry out highly individual campaigns and voters’ sentiments change over time, especially during the campaigns themselves when they have the chance to compare the candidates.

The media plays a special role, providing current information on the candidates, their evolving political positions and their supporters and alliances.

The voters then choose from among the candidates.  They are expected to vote for the person they want to hold office or for the one they dislike the least.

Ranked-choice voting departs completely from this electoral process to force a choice that may not represent the popular will after a full campaign.  If nobody receives a majority of the votes, it could well produce a winner who, in the absence of a head-to-head campaign, turns out to be the first choice of few voters.

That makes ranked-choice voting nothing more than a dangerous shortcut to democracy.

In the U.S., democracy has always meant election either of a candidate by an outright majority or the election of the person with the most votes, even if not a majority.  It has never meant on the federal level or in any statewide election, the selection of a candidate based on his or her second-choice votes.

So ranked-choice voting would be an American political revolution, caused almost entirely by regret about the election of Gov. Paul LePage, who won twice by a plurality.

How ironic it would be that one of the most disliked governors in state history would be allowed to change its political system.

What is most concerning about the proposal is its lack of confidence in the voters themselves.  The LePage elections could have taught Mainers a political lesson.  If you think they are passive and ignorant, what is essentially an electoral gimmick must be imposed on them.

The ranked-choice voting proponents attempted to show how it would work by running mock elections among various kinds of Maine beer.  What may be acceptable for picking your favorite brew is unlikely to be as acceptable in electing the state’s chief executive.

As with the choice of beer, ranked-choice voting trivializes elections, the most important expression of our political system and the one open to all citizens at regular intervals.

And it is complicated.  Voters may select as many ranked choices as there are candidates.  After their first choice is counted, they have no idea of how the voting proceeds.  A computer keeps reshuffling the votes, eliminating the weakest candidate after each pass.  It then spits out the result, which may well be a surprise to the voters.

That means voters cannot even guess the consequences of their actions.  If you voted for one of LePage’s opponents, you could judge if your candidate could win.  With ranked-choice voting, you are ignorant of the vote counting process and of your chances of backing a winner.

It is mathematically possible for a candidate receiving the second or third highest number of first-place votes to win a ranked-choice election.  Is that what voters really want?

Another major problem with the proposal is its constitutionality.  The Maine Constitution specifically allows plurality elections.  Simply passing a law, even one voted in referendum, couldn’t change that fact.

Both houses of the Legislature would have to vote by two-thirds to propose it and then a majority of state voters would have to approve an amendment, before ranked-choice voting could take place.  In short, even a positive vote this November would not assure adoption.

Ranked-choice voting has not been adopted by any other state because it would depart so far from the American political tradition.

If voters in other states conclude that a simple election in which a candidate may be elected by gaining more votes than all others is not satisfactory, other solutions are possible.  In all cases, the essence of the political system has been preserved without ranked-choice voting.

Elections should give voters a real, clear and understandable choice.  Unhappiness with the outcome of a couple of elections should not be allowed to undermine that basic truth.

Next: Alternatives to ranked-choice voting.

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.