Ranked choice voting doesn’t work for Maine voters

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Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Rube Goldberg is famous for designing machines or systems to perform simple tasks — such as pouring breakfast cereal into a bowl — in the most complicated ways. Each year, Goldberg’s estate hosts a “Rube Goldberg Machine Contest,” and I think Maine’s Ranked Choice Voting would make a perfect entry, except there’s nothing funny about it.

When I moved to Maine in the early 1980s, and for decades prior, people who wanted to serve in the Maine Legislature had to first pass a common sense test. They had to go out in public, meet the people they wanted to represent in the Maine Senate or House, ask for their vote, and ask for money to run their campaigns.

This was a working system based on ideas. A Maine legislator is supposed to be his/her constituents’ first line of defense against bad laws; first line of offense on behalf of good laws. Legislators and constituents are meant to maintain open lines of communication, to network among themselves on any and all legislative issues.

Even legislative candidates who could self-finance their campaigns usually did not. If, after sharing their political ideas with district voters, candidates couldn’t persuade enough of them to finance their campaigns — common sense said the candidate could not win an election. They couldn’t even pass the first test.

That failed common sense test contingency succeeded in selling voters on using tax dollars to fund political campaigns. If you can run for political office without paying for it — why not? As a result, Maine has many legislative and gubernatorial races with multiple candidates on the ballot. With three or more candidates, especially in a small population state, odds are no one candidate will get 51 percent of the vote.

That’s mathematics, not a flawed voting system.

After more than one attempt to have ranked choice voting in Maine — including such voting for Maine’s Congressional candidates — Maine voters approved it (52-48 percent), and when the law was challenged, Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court unanimously ruled: “Yes, the Ranked-Choice Voting Act conflicts with the Maine Constitution.”

Maine’s Constitution declares that candidates for the State Legislature and governor are elected by a “plurality” of votes. The candidate with the most votes wins. So why was this measure on a ballot to begin with?

As explained by NY Times reporter Katharine Q. Seelye (5/23/17), ranked choice voting works this way:

“Instead of casting a ballot for a single candidate, the voter ranks…candidates by preference. [With] four choices, …voter[s] rank them one through four.

“If no one wins a majority.., the candidate with…fewest votes is eliminated. If the eliminated candidate was your first choice, then your second-choice vote will be applied in the next round of counting.

“If your second choice is eliminated, your vote for third choice will be applied — and so on until someone wins a majority.”

What an unnecessary mess with nothing good, and everything bad, to offer Maine’s election process.

The best solution is more citizen education and involvement in campaigns and elections. If you don’t like this year’s election results — run for office yourself. Or find a candidate, or a political organization, to your liking, and work to get your candidates in office next election.

Our electoral system works if you work our electoral system. It takes work, citizen involvement, but that’s how our republican form of government is designed to work. My concern is that the farther we drift from that, the less likely we are to find our way back.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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