The Maine Supreme Court’s Decision is a Relief for Democracy

This week I will be covering local news and issues that surround my home state of Maine.

The Maine Supreme Court, via the Kennebec Journal.

Yesterday, news broke that Maine’s Supreme Court deemed ranked-choice voting to be in contravention of the Maine state constitution (which states that “persons elected to the House of Representatives and as Governor shall be elected ‘by a plurality of all votes returned’”) , despite having been adopted by the Maine people in the November referendum. The decision has been ferociously opposed by advocates of the system, and has warranted proposals for a constitutional amendment by state senators and ranked-choice advocates alike. But the Maine Supreme Court is not only constitutionally correct in its holding, it is vitally just on principle; as ranked-choice voting is a fundamentally flawed system based on idealist values antithetical to American democratic principles.

There is perhaps no aspect of political science more nebulous and widely misunderstood than the practice of ranked-choice voting. I, for one, was relatively unfamiliar with the idea until it appeared on Maine’s 2016 referendum, where it was addressed as Maine Question 5, An Act to Establish Ranked Rank Choice Voting. While I was too young at the time to be eligible for voting on the referendum, I attempted to familiarize myself with each question (I actually posted an essay on Medium about Question 3, which regarded gun safety). I had heard of ranked-choice voting before, but had come to very little stance on it. Once the November referendum rolled around, I was presented with the information that its advocates push: that ranked-choice voting (also known as instant-runoff voting) eliminates the risk of “spoiler” candidates and allows voters to express their support for the candidates they truly like.

If you don’t know what the process of ranked-choice voting looks like, here’s a definition from the New York Times:

Ranked-choice voting allows voters to list candidates in order of preference so that if in the first round no one wins a majority, officials can recount the ballots immediately until someone does.

The system by which we currently operate runs on a plurality voting method, where voters select only one candidate, and whichever one receives the most votes wins. The issue with this system is the spoiler effect: when one stronger candidate’s (let’s use Al Gore as an example) votes are split by a weaker candidate with similar views (i.e. Ralph Nader), leaving the opposite, last-choice candidate (in this case, for Democrats, Bush) with the victory. Ostensibly, ranked-choice voting mitigates — or eliminates entirely, according to its most staunch supporters — the risk of third-party candidates from creating a Nader type spoiler effect. Wikipedia offers a great example of how this theoretically could work in practice:

IRV [Instant-runoff voting] has the effect of avoiding split votes when multiple candidates earn support from like-minded voters. For example, suppose there are two similar candidates A & B, and a third opposing candidate C, with first-preference totals of 35% for candidate A, 25% for B and 40% for C. In a plurality voting method, candidate C may win with 40% of the votes, even though 60% of electors prefer both A and B over C. Alternatively, voters are pressured to choose the seemingly stronger candidate of either A or B, despite personal preference for the other, in order to help ensure the defeat of C. With IRV, the electors backing B as their first choice can rank A second, which means candidate A will win by 60% to 40% over C despite the split vote in first choices.

A 2000 Nader cartoon, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

At first glance, such a system appears a great way to encourage voters to cast their votes sincerely without fear of accidentally electing their last choice candidate. When the math of ranked-choice is analyzed, though, it becomes apparent that this ideal outcome is contingent upon several very important — and easily variable — factors. A video from The Center for Election Science breaks this down simply. Essentially, ranked-choice voting must assume a scenario of political extremes in order to work: the “favorite” candidate must be either extremely weak or have a very strong chance at winning. Let’s say you put Nader as your first choice, and Gore as your second. What if Nader does really well and ends up superseding Gore in the votes? Not only would you send Nader off to face a skilled, major candidate (Bush) before he’s necessarily prepared to, you would also have to rely completely on Gore voters to vote almost entirely for Nader, which wouldn’t happen. If your candidate does not fall under the polar extremes of either having no chance or being very strong, you end up running into the very problem that ranked-choice voting attempts to eliminate: electing your least favorite candidate by default. I’ll embed the video below, so you can see this issue of “favorite betrayal” explained more clearly:

This isn’t the only well documented problem that arises from ranked-choice voting’s misguided attempt at being a solution. It is often proposed by advocates as being a way to boost voter turnout. But, as the video explains, low voter turnout from third party voters could actually be the only thing to prevent the last choice candidate from winning. It’s also a grossly costly system, being “more expensive than either the current election system or any accepted alternative to plurality elections in which the candidate with the most votes wins.” Perhaps most importantly, ranked-choice can be immensely complicated to voters. Voting is already a complex process, and with the number of questions voters are already inundated with, ranked-choice could only add fuel to the fire. As noted in an article from The William and Mary Law Review, ranked-choice would “complicate a system in which voters are already overwhelmed by a huge number of choices in some election cycles. It is also complicated to explain to voters how the winner is chosen, meaning that voters would inevitably attempt to strategically rank, or choose not to rank, candidates. In addition, public confidence in the current electoral system would be reduced further if many voters did not understand how to vote, how their votes were counted, or felt as if the strategic voting of other citizens had somehow undermined their vote.” Ranked-choice voting requires an enormous amount of strategy that could confuse and discourage voters to the point of fury, or even total abstention.

Maine has been a trailblazing state for the ranked-choice movement, likely because of the 2014 reelection of Governor Paul LePage. Lepage’s victory, a sore subject for many Mainers, is often blame on independent Eliot Cutler for stealing votes away from the Democratic Mike Michaud. But this sort of post traumatic stress from LePage’s win is in no way grounds for the introduction of ranked-choice — especially when such a system may not have even been effective in preventing LePage’s victory.

The results of the 2014 Maine gubernatorial election, via Wikipedia.

I worry that this trauma may spread nationally, as Democrats remain dismayed by the presence of candidates like Jill Stein. Luckily, Maine’s Supreme Court has halted Maine’s dangerous move toward the poor system of ranked-choice dead in its tracks. So, I suppose, as goes Maine so goes the nation — unless the Constitution stops you first.