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  • Ranked-choice voting a poor method to empower voters

    Editorial by Gordon Weil

    Suppose you regret the election of Gov. Paul LePage, seeing it as the result of his opposition vote being split between two other major candidates. 

    One solution, you think, might be ranked-choice voting, believing that way another candidate would have defeated LePage, despite his having the most first-place votes.

    There are at least four other ways of dealing with plurality elections. They are less unusual, less complicated and more transparent. They are all less costly. And they are less dangerous to real democracy.

    The runoff election. The most obvious is the runoff, a second-round election between the two top vote-getters when nobody wins a majority. Unlike ranked-choice voting, runoffs exist in several other states.

    The runoff allows for a second round of campaigning, giving voters a close look at the finalists and a real choice.

    In 2015, the five-candidate Lewiston mayoral race failed to produce a majority winner, so the city held a runoff between the top two vote-getters. The second-place finisher in the first round was elected after a fresh discussion of the issues and with voters for three other candidates making a new choice.

    Critics say second-round runoffs have lower voter turnouts. In Lewiston, the turnout for the first election, conducted at the same time as other issues, including state ballot items, was 8,332. The turnout for the runoff, an election involving only the two mayoral candidates, was 8,229, with only about 100 fewer voters turning out.

    As for cost, if we assume runoffs require as much as a general election, in a nonpresidential year the Maine secretary of state’s office says that the state’s election cost has reached $247,931, or 41 cents per voter. So that could be the cost of a runoff.

    What voters would buy is a real chance to vote, the most important role most people play in a democracy. Is a real election worth much less than the cost of a candy bar?

    The secretary of state’s office estimates that ranked-choice voting in the first year would cost $910,000, about $1.61 per voter. The added expenses would cover tabulating equipment, printing, temporary employees and ballot transportation. Similar costs would be imposed by each ranked-choice election.

    In short, ranked-choice voting alone would cost more, almost four times the cost of a runoff.

    Top-two primary. All candidates run against each other in the primary, and the top two finishers go onto the election ballot.

    There are no party primaries. The result may even be that two candidates of the same party or with similar views face each other in the election. In contrast, runoff elections are usually between candidates of different parties.

    This system has real advantages. It could cut state and municipal expenses for tabulation of two political party primaries in June, when parties select their candidates for state and federal office. It prevents split voting from affecting the result. It’s used in California and a few other states.

    In Maine, that system could have yielded an election between LePage and independent Eliot Cutler in 2010 and between LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud in 2014.

    Plural nomination. A candidate may appear more than once on the ballot. That could allow a candidate to run as both a party nominee and an independent.

    In closely contested elections in recent decades, the candidates for governor were a Republican, a Democrat and a former Democrat running as an independent. These independents were Jim Longley, the 1974 winner, Angus King, who won in 1994 and 1998, and Cutler in the two LePage elections.

    Though he ran as an independent for the U.S. Senate, King usually votes with Senate Democrats. Recently, he joined Maine Democrats in welcoming Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, the party’s vice presidential candidate. He could run as a Democrat in 2018, probably a good idea for the party, which would want a strong Senate candidate on the ballot to help the rest of the ticket.

    Right now in Maine, a candidate can only appear once on the ballot. Would King give up his independent line on the ballot?

    This alternative, also called “electoral fusion,” would require only minor legislative changes and could prove a viable alternative to ranked-choice voting. A candidate like King could run on two different lines on the ballot, Democrat and independent, avoiding a split that LePage might try to exploit.

    This procedure is authorized in nine states and has been frequently used in New York. Earl Warren was elected this way as governor of California and went on to be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

    What all these voting methods have in common is they are used in other states, and they are part of the American political tradition, while ranked-choice voting is not used in any American statewide, congressional or state legislative election. They all accomplish the same purpose sought by ranked-choice advocates.

    Status quo. The best solution is probably to stick with the current use of plurality elections, also used by the overwhelming majority of states. The person with the most votes is elected. Of course, a candidate lacking a first-round majority may win, but that’s also true in ranked-choice voting.  

    And today’s system avoids more than $910,000 in the added costs of ranked-choice voting. The system imposes an obligation on voters to be aware of the risks of divided opposition. The media and civic groups must do a better job of educating and informing voters on those risks.

    In the current system, the voters must inform themselves and then decide. While there are workable alternative methods, ranked-choice voting — untested in state or federal elections — is an unsatisfactory substitute for widely accepted ways of providing real voter choice.

    Gordon Weil is a former Harpswell selectman and state official who headed three state agencies under Gov. Joseph Brennan. Weil also was a correspondent for the Washington Post. He lives in Harpswell.