2018-04-16 / Opinion

RCV Demands Serious Debate, Not Partisan Wars

Guest Column

Gordon Weil Gordon Weil Maine seems to be enjoying what could turn out to be a long-running political saga.

It began with the 2010 election, when a split electorate made Paul LePage governor, even though he had failed to gain a majority of votes. Frustrated, some saw a solid majority that could have elected an opponent if there had been no split.

Unhappy with the election outcome, they realized that electing governors who had not won an outright majority dated back decades. It looked like it was growing easier for independent candidates, thanks to public financing and the requirement of a relatively low number of nomination signatures.

The solution for some unhappy voters was a system called ranked choice voting. Through a complicated system under which people could vote for more than one candidate at the same time, an artificial majority winner could be guaranteed.

RCV, as it has come to be known, responded to broad unhappiness with LePage and others winning with less than a majority. No other alternative was offered, and voters adopted the RCV proposal.

That might have been the end of the story, except that the Maine Supreme Court opined that RCV violated the state Constitution, notably when it came to electing the governor. Since the 1880s, it had explicitly prescribed a plurality — the person with the most votes wins.

Now, Maine has embarked on what inevitably will be a multi-year story to resolve just how it will vote. This June’s vote is only one chapter.

RCV supporters have taken to claiming the RCV opposition comes from the Republicans. They hope the GOP’s expected lack of popularity in forthcoming elections can be used to leverage support for RCV. You don’t like the GOP, so you must like RCV. That was the theme of a piece in this paper last week.

Well, I am not a Republican, and I have serious reservations about RCV. I agree that we should look for ways to end plurality voting, but think it is far from the best available solution.

There are three reasons for looking for alternatives to RCV.

First, according to data from the Maine Secretary of State, it is the most expensive possible alternative.

Second, it can allow one person’s vote to count more than another’s.

Third, it is not the system in any state, while other states have developed sound ways of ensuring majority winners.

On cost, RCV requires special equipment and transportation, which must be rented for each election. The costs will be borne by both the state and local governments, and should hit seven figures. No alternative requires special equipment or transport of ballots.

This year, the Democrats have seven candidates for governor. Under RCV, you could vote for all seven or fewer in rank order. If your favorite washes out in the system, your second choice vote is then cast. Meanwhile, the voter who picked the leader gets no second vote.

That’s the second problem. One voter can get two or more votes, while others get only one. RCV solves the plurality problem, but only by undermining the principle of “one person, one vote.”

Finally, there are a number of better alternatives. Here are just two.

Some states use run-off voting. If no candidate receives a majority, the top two candidates run again. Voters can experience a new campaign and a chance to compare the two. That’s preferable to having a computer stage the run-off without benefit of an additional campaign.

The cost of run-offs is less than RCV. But run-offs have been criticized because the turnout on the second vote may be low. Not necessarily.

In 2015, the writer of last week’s pro-RCV piece ran for mayor of Lewiston. Under plurality voting, he would have won. But Lewiston uses a run-off, and on the second vote, another candidate received the absolute majority. Turnout was about the same in the two elections.

The coming new system is not RCV, but the “open primary.” A closed primary, now used in Maine, is accessible to party members only, and there is one for each party. An open primary is open to anybody who gets the signatures. Each candidate may declare a party preference. There is one primary for all candidates.

California uses the “Top Two Candidate Open Primary.” Every candidate participates in a single primary and the top two vote getters are on the general election ballot. In practice, the system reduces the chance for spoilers, but encourages more candidates, just as is claimed for RCV.

In 2016, among candidates for the U.S. Senate, Californians picked two Democrats for the general election. In the primary, there were 14 candidates from four parties receiving more than one percent of the vote.

How we vote should not be a partisan matter. It should be a question of good government with the intent to build a consensus on the best way to replace the plurality vote. Everything should be on the table — and soon.

Gordon Weil is a former public official. He lives in Harpswell.

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