True democracy put to the vote in Maine

You would think that an election system that allows people to vote for the person who most closely represents their views would be the one that is preferred. A system that comes close to this ideal is the preferential voting system where people rank order their votes for the candidates. After the first round of counting of only first place votes, if no candidate gets an outright majority of 50% plus one vote, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and the second choice votes of those who gave that person their first choice are then added to the totals of the remaining candidates. This process goes on until one candidate wins a majority. In this system, no vote is ‘wasted’ in the sense of people voting for someone who has little chance of winning, because their other preferences still count.

But many politicians prefer the current system that exists in the US, where people can vote only for one candidate and the person who wins a plurality of the vote gets elected to office. In this system, voters are pressured to think strategically and abandon the person they like best in order to prevent the person they hate most from entering office, by voting for an opponent who is seen as having the best chance of beating that person. In other words, we have a system where we vote for the least-worst candidate.

Michael Waldman writes about the situation in Maine where voters have had to fight the entrenched parties to get this kind of preferential system installed.

In 2016, the state’s voters enacted something called ranked choice voting. It is a radical rewrite of how elections happen, backed by voters after both Democratic and Republican legislators had refused to act. Heartwarming, yes?

Unfortunately, after a state Supreme Court ruling, Republicans moved to block the reform from taking effect. They had quiet help from some Democratic officials as well. So voters turned to something called a “people’s veto”—in this case, a veto of a move to effectively veto the citizens referendum.

On June 12, Maine will hold statewide primaries for governor and other offices using the new system. At the same time, voters will decide whether to move forward with the reform altogether. After a legal tangle, the secretary of state just published the new innovative ballots. It will either be a glorious reaffirmation of the people’s power to rule, or a fiasco. What’s at stake? In nearly all the United States, elections can be won by plurality, not a majority—and even if most people can’t stand the winner. We all tend to assume this is the only way to stage an election. In Maine, where there is an unusually strong tradition of independent candidates, eight out of the last ten governors were elected without a majority.

So a lot is riding on the election in June. Recently Secretary of State Matt Dunlop published the ballots using the new rules, which seem clear enough. If Maine’s system is reaffirmed at the ballot box, and works well, we can expect it to spread to other states.

It’s all part of a democracy reform wave cresting across the country. In Michigan and possibly other states including Utah, Colorado and Missouri, ballot measures would establish nonpartisan commissions for legislative redistricting. In Ohio, Governor Kasich has worked with reformers to push a similar plan. A Florida ballot measure would end the state’s lifetime ban on voting for people with a felony conviction, restoring the right to vote to over one million people. New Jersey just became the twelfth state to enact automatic voter registration, which would add millions to the rolls nationwide. Americans sense their democracy needs repair.

Standing against that wave are politicians busily trying to entrench themselves. It’s brazen, to say the least, to snub the voters. Let’s hope Maine citizens do their duty and reaffirm their reform.

Let’s hope the measure passes in Maine of June 12. That will be a major victory for election reform.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Mainers only get to vote Yes or No on this, with no range of options to sort out?


  2. Callinectes says

    If it passes, the trick is to continue to elect only Democrats and Republicans for a few cycles to lure the other states into a false sense of security. Once they’re convinced that the risk of changing the system does not outweigh the immediate support they stand to gain for promoting it, more states will follow. Only then do we strike.

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