There are a number of problems, both constitutional and logistical, with ranked-choice voting. However, the biggest problem is that it magnifies the votes of some at the expense of others, in a way that rewards bad candidates instead of discouraging them.
For example, let’s assume we have a three-way race for governor, with a third-party liberal candidate, a Democrat, and a Republican. As Maine elections work now, the Democrat might lose because he or she was unable to simultaneously address the concerns of disappointed moderates and extremists who ended up casting their votes for a more liberal candidates. The split in left-wing votes would result in a Republican victory with a plurality of the votes.
If, however, ranked-choice voting were in place, the moderate Democrat may very well win. If the left-wing candidate’s voters marked off the moderate Democrat as their second choice, the moderate Democrat would rocket to victory under the ranked-choice voting system during the second round of vote tallying.
But if the ranked-choice voting helps a moderate Democrat win when he or she would lose under the traditional system, we’ve done nothing to give more voice to disenfranchised voters. Instead, all we’ve done is encouraged both parties to field the same kind of disingenuous, lackadaisical candidates they’ve run in the past, knowing that if their guys (or gals) can’t win up front, they’ll be bailed out by the system.
This doesn’t make democracy better. It gives bad political parties a bailout, the same way that Congress gave Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase bailouts during the financial crisis. The difference is this: We don’t have a crisis as an excuse, just a few people who are disappointed with losing.
Essentially, what ranked-choice voting does — or rather, attempts to do — is kill the protest vote. It is often said by diehard partisans that if you vote for a third-party or independent candidate, you’re “throwing your vote away” because your vote “won’t count.” That’s nonsense, of course, but it’s nonsense that’s useful in convincing people to vote for many-a-second-rate candidate.
Under ranked-choice voting, however, that would become literally true. If you feel that none of the major-party candidates is acceptable, and you don’t want to mark any of them as even your second choice, then your vote might not factor into the instant runoffs that ultimately determine the winner. Essentially, ranked-choice voting gives some voters more sway over the election than others. That’s unfair, as it flies in the face of the “one person, one vote” principle that has long been a cornerstone of voting rights case law.
Unfortunately, we don’t know that ranked-choice voting will actually improve our system, only that it will change it. Sure, it might help to elect more moderates to office — or it might have the opposite effect and boost extremists, especially in primaries. Right now, there just isn’t enough data to support the idea that ranked-choice voting produces better results. It hasn’t been enacted on a statewide scale anywhere in this country, just at the local level.
What we do know about ranked-choice voting is that it would be a confusing and expensive change to implement statewide. In a close election, it could cause extraordinary chaos in the event of a recount. Instead of lending greater credibility to the outcome, it could undermine it. In short, it might have none of the positive effects that supporters promise and a great deal of unforeseen negative ones.
Maine has many serious problems that need solutions, but how we run our elections isn’t one of them. Let’s reject this risky scheme and stick with the same electoral process that has long served this state well.