Maine Votes on an Alternative to the Two-Party System

Outside of Stephen King novels, Maine does not figure prominently in the American psyche. (No offense Mainers, your state is beautiful and relatively well governed, so maybe the lack of any attention speaks to its quiet success.) But the New England state of 1.3 million has an intriguing initiative on the ballot that might offer a well needed shake up of the flawed and increasingly maligned two-party system that currently prevails. At a time when cynicism towards the U.S. political process has perhaps never been better, this idea is worth looking into. As The Nation’s Hendrik Hertzberg wrote:

Up in the easternmost state of the Union, an initiative on the November ballot, Question 5, would establish something called ranked-choice voting (RCV) for governor and both houses of the State Legislature. That’s important. It would do the same for primaries as well as for general elections. That’s important, too. But what makes Question 5 of truly national significance is that it would also apply to Maine’s United States senators and its two members of the House of Representatives in Washington. If Question 5 passes, it will be what Joe Biden would call (when he knows there’s a hot mic in the vicinity, that is) a very big deal.

Before proceeding to the idea in question, Hertzberg points an important word in about the nature of the two-party system and why it remains entrenched despite its apparent unpopularity

The two-party system is not a malevolent conspiracy. It’s not an elite-generated “duopoly” whose designers set out to limit choice, suppress innovative ideas, and marginalize candidates and parties that threaten the comfortable (for some) status quo. It’s not even a system per se. It’s a side effect of a system. The real system is simply the set of electoral rules and customs bequeathed to us from the primitive political technology of powdered-wig days. The two-party pattern is a logical, almost inevitable, maybe even desirable consequence of two main features of that technology: (a) single-member districts, which are inherently winner-take-all, as are elections for executive offices; and (b) plurality elections, otherwise known as first-past-the-post, under which the candidate with the largest vote total wins even if a majority of voters would rather have somebody else. When there are more than two non-negligible parties contending for a single office, one common result is ideological fratricide—the notorious spoiler effect. By voting for the party or candidate you like best, you may help elect the one you like least. Another consequence is to diminish the chances that the outcome will more or less reflect the wishes of a majority. Given these realities, natural selection took its course and, by 1828, gave us roughly what we’ve had ever since: a two-party “system”.

In other words, the dominance of just two parties across all levels of the U.S. political system is the natural result of how elections are conducted. By changing how people can choose their officials, we can ostensibly open up our political offices to a wider and more competent selection of individuals and ideas. Here’s how it can be done:

You may already know about ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, but it’s surprising how many well-informed people don’t. It’s pretty simple. Instead of voting for one of three or four or five or a dozen candidates, you rank as many as you wish in your personal order of preference. If one of them gets a majority of first choices, boom: He or she wins outright. If not, the second choices of voters whose first choice was the last-place candidate become those voters’ first choices. Still no majority? The process continues till someone goes over 50 percent.

It would be enough if all ranked-choice voting did was to get rid of the spoiler effect and its lamentable perversities (case in point: Florida, 2000). But the salutary side effects of this system of casting and counting votes go well beyond that. RCV opens up elections, primary and general alike, to a broader, more diverse range of candidates, ideas, and, yes, parties. Because it gives candidates a powerful incentive to be the second (or third or fourth, if the field is big enough) choice of their rivals’ first-preference supporters, it discourages incivility in general, and scorched-earth, zero-sum negative campaigning in particular. By the same token, it incentivizes good manners and a willingness to entertain the possibility of compromise. It guarantees that the ultimate winner will always be someone who’s at least acceptable, however grudgingly, to a majority —and it never yields a winner whom the majority simply cannot abide. It empowers voters to deliver a more nuanced message and allows candidates—who, if the counting goes to more than one round, will know where the votes that put them over the top came from—to receive one.

If initiative passes, Maine will be the first state with this voting method; up until now, only a few cities — Minneapolis, Oakland, and San Francisco among them — use RCV; whether it has had any measurable effect on local politics, I’m not sure.

In any case, it appears Question 5 will succeed, but of course we’ll have to wait until after November 8th to know the results. And lest anyone think that a “Yes” won’t amount to much on a national level, the article reminds us how so many other big political changes began at the state level:

But if Maine’s answer to Question 5 is Yes, ranked-choice voting for U.S. senators and representatives is likely to spread to other states. The state-by-state approach has been a seldom-recognized template for electoral reform in our federal system. Well before the 17th and 19th constitutional amendments were ratified, many states were already electing their senators by popular vote and women were already voting, including for president, in nearly half the country, mostly the western half. This time, with any luck, the pioneering laboratory of democracy will be Down East.

Indeed, while plenty of other countries have used some variation of ranked choice voting for decades — including established democracies like Australia, Germany, and the U.K. — being able to experiment with the idea here at home will make it more palatable. A domestic example will embolden other states — and eventually perhaps even Congress — to implement the idea.

Granted, ranked-choice voting alone won’t repair the U.S. political system; there is more to civic participation and reform than voting. But I think this is a good place to start, and at the very least we should be willing to test the idea.

What are your thoughts?


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