Imagine choosing our senators, governors, and congressmen the same way they choose who wins Best Picture at the Oscars. Maine thinks it’s worth a shot.
This November, a ballot measure known as Question 5 will ask Maine voters to totally overhaul the way the state decides its elections. If Question 5 passes, Maine would no longer follow the rest of the country in determining a winner by simple plurality; instead, it would be the first state to employ instant-runoff voting to ensure every winner receives a full majority. This alternative method of vote-counting is a favorite of election reformers nationwide, but they’ve never had a prize this big within their grasp. If it delivers as supporters promise, the initiative could swing the outcomes of elections—and even end the trend of political polarization.
Currently, Maine uses the “first-past-the-post” method of vote-counting that we are all familiar with: all a candidate must do to win the election is receive more votes than anybody else. However, in a multi-candidate field, this means that our next leaders can be elected with well short of a majority. (Think Donald Trump winning the Republican primary with 45% of the national popular vote.) As a result, a small niche of voters can carry a fringe candidate to victory even if a majority of the electorate objects—but splits their votes too diffusely to stop him or her.
Supporters of Maine's Question 5 intend to keep that from ever happening. Their solution is instant-runoff voting, which asks voters not simply to check just one name, but to rank the candidates in order of whom they prefer. Ballot-counters total up all the candidates’ first-place votes to see if any candidate has a majority. If not, the candidate with the least first-place votes is eliminated, and his or her votes are redistributed to the candidates ranked second on his or her ballots. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority. Advocates of instant-runoff voting (also known as ranked-choice voting) argue that this method precludes a scenario where two ideologically similar candidates split a majority of the vote and allow a third candidate, who is reviled by most voters, to win by plurality.
In head-to-head elections like Democrat-versus-Republican generals, instant-runoff voting works the same as our current winner-take-all system. Its strength is in handling multi-candidate mêlées, making it a favorite of minor parties and independents. The ballot proposal would allow voters to cast their “first” votes for third-party candidates without fear that they are throwing their vote away or playing spoiler—because they know their vote will safely be redistributed to their second-ranked choice. For example, an environmental activist could safely vote for the Green Party candidate without harming the chances of the Democrat; as long as the Democrat was ranked ahead of the Republican on his or her ballot, his or her vote would eventually count toward the Democrat after the Green candidate is eliminated.
This method is already used to elect legislators in Australia, presidents in India and Ireland, and mayors in San Francisco and in Maine’s largest city, Portland. The Maine legislature has considered and rejected instant-runoff voting in the past, but the ballot box finally gives it a realistic shot at passing. In 2006, a similar referendum in Minneapolis passed with 65% of the vote, and today’s municipal elections there employ instant-runoff voting. The system worked to the extreme, both for good and for bad, in the 2013 mayoral election, when it successfully winnowed down a 35-candidate field to declare City Councilor Betsey Hodges the winner—after 48 hours and 33 rounds of tabulation.
It's no coincidence that this alternative method is now catching on in Maine of all places. The state has a well-known independent streak. Its longtime Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, were liberal mavericks to the rest of their party, and when Snowe retired in 2012, her replacement was an actual independent, Angus King. Overall, independent candidates are more numerous and are taken more seriously in Maine than in most other states.
As a result, election by plurality is a sore subject for many in the Pine Tree State. In Maine’s past 11 elections for governor, nine of the winners failed to win a majority of the vote thanks to the presence of independent candidates. In 2010 and 2014, many observers believe that centrist independent candidate Eliot Cutler drew liberal votes away from the Democratic candidate, leading twice to the election of Tea Party Republican Governor Paul LePage in a state that gave Barack Obama 56% of the vote in 2012.
In the 2010 election, LePage won the governorship with a narrow plurality of the vote (38.1%), defeating Cutler (36.4%) and Democrat Libby Mitchell (19.1%). Under instant-runoff voting, however, Cutler likely would have won. Mitchell would have been eliminated in an instant runoff, and the vast majority of her votes would almost certainly have gone to Cutler, her most ideologically similar candidate. Under a moderate Governor Cutler, the last four years in Maine would have looked very different.
This is a major selling point of the ballot measure to many Mainers—and a major sticking point for the state’s Democratic and Republican elite, who fear instant-runoff voting’s friendliness to independents will dilute their party’s clout. But historically this has not been the case. The system may benefit minor parties by helping them reach thresholds—in Maine, 5%—to gain ballot access and recognition as political parties, but it rarely hands them the election. The mayors of Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Portland are all Democrats, and fringe candidates have still been the first to be eliminated in instant runoffs. (Contrary to Cutler’s example, most independent candidates make their runs from either the far left or the far right.)
In fact, that may be instant-runoff supporters’ best argument: it stops polarizing candidates dead in their tracks. Because the winner has to be acceptable to over 50% of the electorate, instant-runoff voting rewards middle-of-the-road candidates who tack closest to the median voter. In a state where the legislature and governor are almost literally at war, and in a country where Congress and the White House’s inability to agree have ground governance to a halt, the potential of instant-runoff voting to stem political polarization is intriguing.
It has worked in Hollywood, of all places. Two years ago, American Sniper, the Iraq War film by conservative director Clint Eastwood, had many passionate supporters for Best Picture—quite possibly a plurality of Oscar voters in the fragmented eight-film field. But under the Academy’s instant-runoff method of voting, Birdman eventually won the award. Liberal Academy voters who didn’t rank American Sniper first probably listed it toward the bottom of their ballots, preventing it from picking up much support in the instant runoffs.
However, it’s easy to mischaracterize instant-runoff voting as always leading to the election of the consensus choice—the candidate acceptable to the broadest swath of voters. In reality, instant-runoff voting favors a combination of passion and consensus. Take a three-way election between a Democrat, a centrist independent, and a Republican. You would expect all Democratic voters to rank them first, second, and third, respectively, and all Republican voters to rank them third, second, and first, respectively. In that case, the independent candidate is every voter’s second choice—but he or she will be also the first eliminated in the instant runoffs.
This was essentially the scenario of Maine’s 2014 gubernatorial election, in which LePage was reelected with 48.2% of the vote. Democrat Mike Michaud earned 43.4%, and Cutler, despite having the best favorability ratings of the three candidates, pulled only 8.4%. According to exit polls, Cutler’s support would have roughly split evenly between LePage and Michaud in a two-way race. The outcome would not have changed: because more Republicans turned out to vote than Democrats, LePage took the election largely on his own strength.
This is the ugly truth to many Question 5 proponents who are supporting it for tactical reasons: instant-runoff voting does nothing more than reflect the electorate it is given. If one party is excited to vote and another stays home, no election-law change will make a difference. For Maine Democrats, Question 5 should not be considered a panacea, or a crutch to use to avoid the harder and more important work of organizing. In the end, Mainers should vote for Question 5 not for any perceived political side effects; history has shown they are unpredictable and in many cases nonexistent. Instead, Mainers should vote for Question 5 simply because they believe it is a fairer way to conduct elections.