Challenge to ranked-choice voting in Maine thrown out

The only congressional races to use ranked choice voting are those in Maine and the first time it was used was in last month’s elections and it produced a result in the second Congressional district that illustrated how it works. When the first choice votes were counted, the Republican candidate Bruce Poliquin came in first and the Democrat Jared Golden came second but none of the four candidates got the required 50%+1 votes. So the second choices of those voted for the candidates who came in third and fourth were then tabulated and Golden emerged the winner.

So naturally Poliquin sued in federal court, saying that the ranked-choice voting system was unconstitutional and that the plurality system should have prevailed. He must have been encouraged by the fact that the case would be heard by a Trump-appointed judge Lance Walker. But today, the judge threw out his challenge.

The judge said he failed to see how Maine’s candidate-ranking system undercut voters’ First Amendment rights “in any fashion.” He said the system was “motivated by a desire to enable third-party and non-party candidates to participate in the political process, and to enable their supporters to express support, without producing the spoiler effect.”

The new method of voting “actually encourages First Amendment expression, without discriminating against any voter based on viewpoint, faction or other invalid criteria,” said Walker, a judge with U.S. District Court in Bangor.

Maine only uses this method for primaries and federal elections because the state constitution apparently requires only a plurality to win. Poliquin may well appeal the verdict bit it is hard to see him winning since the US constitution is silent on this issue.

I hope more states adopt the ranked-choice method. It provides a much better gauge of voter preferences than the plurality method.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the ranked-choice method… provides a much better gauge of voter preferences than the plurality method.

    Something neither of the major parties sees any advantage in.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    The judge said he failed to see how Maine’s candidate-ranking system undercut voters’ First Amendment rights “in any fashion.”

    It’s good to see he approached the question correctly, being concerned with the rights of the voters and not the rights of a candidate.

  3. says

    I’m not sure why you say that the state constitution “apparently requires only a plurality to win.” It clearly does. For instance here’s the language regarding a State Senator: “The Senate shall, on said first Wednesday of December, biennially determine who is elected by a plurality of votes to be Senator in each district.” Emphasis added.

  4. DonDueed says

    Even if the judge had agreed with Poliquin’s argument, he couldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) have awarded the election to Poliquin. The voters cast their ballots on the basis of ranked choice and might well have voted differently if the election required only a plurality.

    At best, a successful challenge would (or should) have resulted in a new election.

  5. file thirteen says

    Second choice votes confuse me. Suppose there were three candidates, Angeni, Bena and Chu’mana, who received the following percentage of the votes:

    Angeni 34% (second choices Bena 0%, Chu’mana 34%)
    Bena 34% (second choices Angeni 0%, Chu’mana 34%)
    Chu’mana 32% (second choices Angeni 16%, Bena 16%)

    Since no candidate has a majority, Chu’mana is eliminated and her voters’ second choices, which were evenly split between Angeni and Bena, are redistributed among the other two, giving them 50% of the vote each. After the inevitable recount, Angeni wins by a single vote.

    What was never considered is that Angeni and Bena’s voters unanimously gave their second choice votes to Chu’mana. So had either Angeni or Bena been eliminated instead of Chu’mana, Chu’mana would have won by a landslide. Moreover, all of the voters gave either their first or second choice vote to Chu’mana. Angeni and Bena can’t claim anything close to that!

    My question is then, can it really be said to have been a democratic result?

    Had second choices been absent, it may well have been that a number of Angeni and Bena voters voted for Chu’mana instead (tactical voting to keep their most hated opponent out of office) and Chu’mana won. Of course there are other situations where considering second choice votes does make things more democratic (if Chu’mana’s voters’ second choices had all been for Bena for example), but it does trouble me that having a vote with second choices in the example above results in the least democratic, IMO, outcome.

  6. file thirteen says

    Having thought more about my example, a major missing piece is how strongly the voters felt about each candidate. It makes a huge difference if (1) Angeni and Bena’s voters, while detesting their main opponent, disliked Chu’mana too and only voted for her as second choice because it was just a slightly better option than their opponent, or (2) everyone who didn’t vote for her still really liked Chu’mana, and only slightly less than their first choice.

    I can’t think of how that could be catered for though. Democracy is complicated.

  7. file thirteen says

    More thoughts. Maybe option (2) is not so problematic, as at least more people will be represented by Chu’mana winning than by any other result. And though Chu’mana is widely disliked, it can’t be said she didn’t get a mandate, and at least there won’t be Angeni or Bena supporters rioting in the streets!

    Not sure how a system could be implemented that would make Chu’mana the winner though, as she scored the lowest number of first choice votes, so any process that relies on iteratively discarding the candidate that scored the lowest number of votes would fail at that.

  8. tbrandt says

    file thirteen: The perfect voting system (by a reasonable measure of perfect) does not exist: this is Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Voting systems are a fascinating area of economics.

  9. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To file thirteen
    Welcome to the problem known as Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Very loosely, it’s impossible to have a fair voting system. With a little more technicality, it’s impossible to have a voting system that includes 3 or more choices that satisfy what many people consider to be obvious criteria of fairness -- no dictator, no spoiler effect, and switching your vote to a particular candidate cannot make the selected candidate lose the election.

    As for your constructed example, it’s well known, and stuff like that has happened in major real world elections in major countries. However, I think many would argue, myself included, that it’s relatively rare for it to happen, and consequently instant-runoff ranked preference voting is preferable to largest-plurarity-wins.

    Better still would just be going to a parliamentary system, aka a party list system.

  10. file thirteen says

    Thanks tbrandt and EnlightenmentLiberal for pointing me towards Arrow’s theorem. I will refrain from commenting on voting systems further until I fully understand it. 🙂

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