Maine’s Experiment: Ranked Choice Voting

James Dail CM ’20 – Democracy in America is changing. The last several decades have seen a remarkable increase in partisanship. Unless a single party controls both chambers of the legislature and the executive, it has become nearly impossible to pass any substantive legislation. There are those who point to the political compromises that the Clinton administration made with congressional Republicans as evidence that a government split by the two parties can produce quality legislation. While this may have been true in the past, compromise between the two major parties on issues of substance is beginning to prove impossible. Since 1973, there has been a steady decline in the number of laws enacted by Congress. There have been a plethora of proposed causes to increasing partisanship, but what matters is the remedy. Fortunately, an experiment is underway in Maine that may provide the cure.

This democratic experiment is called ranked choice voting. Instead of selecting the candidate of one’s preference, one ranks all of the candidates on the ballot from the most to least preferred. If no candidate reaches a majority on the first ballot, then the candidate who received last place on that ballot is eliminated from the voting, and the second choice of those who opted for the eliminated candidate are counted instead. This continues until one candidate has reached a majority.2 Ranked choice voting solves partisanship in two ways. First, it gives third parties a stronger say in the government. For example, if I am an environmentalist who wholeheartedly supports the message of the Green Party, but who never votes for them because of the current two party duopoly, my dilemma is solved by ranking the Green Party candidate first and the Democratic Party candidate second. With the fear of a Democratic loss out of the way, people will who currently have reservations about voting for third party candidates would be liberated. This will ensure an increase in votes for Green Party candidates, and it will in turn increase Green representation in Congress. Second, through the increased presence of third parties, it will discourage radicalization and encourage all candidates to move to the center. Though candidates will have to stay true to the bulk of their party’s core message in order to win the primary, it will force them to throw a bone to other factions in the electorate to remain a viable option in the general election. This also translates into governance, as members of Congress, desiring a high ranking during elections, will be encouraged to forge compromises to appeal to those outside of their base.

Fortunately, ranked voting is not purely theoretical. It is the voting system that is used in both Ireland and Australia.2 This means that it can be subject to analysis on a national scale. In both Ireland and Australia, there are two major political parties that dominate national politics. However, there are also a plethora of smaller political parties. These parties provide the main two with the opportunity to form coalition governments in order to achieve a governing majority.4-5 In the United States I would venture a guess that the outcome would be similar, with the Republican and Democratic Parties both dominating the conversation, but with minor parties having a seat at the negotiating table. In addition, the forming of coalition governments moderates the political parties by forcing them to work together. If two left-wing parties formed a coalition to govern, then the moderate left party will balance out the views of the far left party, and drive the resulting legislation to the middle of the two positions. This is an important feature in the current age of US political polarization, as it ensures that moderates always have a voice.

It is unlikely that this will apply to the presidency, due to the stipulation in article two of the Constitution that states that the presidential election will go to the House of Representatives if no candidate reaches a majority on the initial ballot. However, if the measure was adopted for Congress, it would still perform the necessary function of easing the partisan divide and making compromise easier to achieve. Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once referred to the states as laboratories of democracy. In other words, they are proving grounds for policies. The states weed out the good from the bad, with the good carrying on to the national level. Maine may provide America’s saving grace by providing the needed solution to heal her partisan divide.

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