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ranked-choice voting

This state could make future elections easier for third parties and harder for Trumps

Getty/Win McName

Donald Trump has praised himself for earning the most votes in a Republican primary in history. And for once, he’s right—even if Trump neglected to brag about the other record he broke.

The Republican presidential nominee also set the record for most votes against him, according to a Washington Post analysis. Trump may have gotten 14 million people on his side, but an unprecedented 16 million cast votes for other candidates.

Less than half (45%) of registered Republicans voted for Trump, yet he still won the nomination—impassioned internal opposition to his candidacy be damned.

Voters in Maine, however, may soon ditch this system. On Nov. 8, they’ll decide whether to become the first place to enforce ranked-choice voting (RCV) on a statewide level, including for primary elections. It’s a system that would’ve made it harder for Trump to win the Republican nomination without getting more than 50% of votes in the primaries.

RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. After the candidate with the fewest No. 1 votes is eliminated, voters who chose this person as their top candidate get their next choices considered instead. The process is then repeated until one candidate emerges with a clear majority of votes. Advocates call it an “instant run-off” because RCV settles non-majority disputes without asking voters to cast another ballot.

If this all sounds confusing, here’s a 45-second video that explains RCV:

“In ranked-choice voting, candidates that are strongly opposed by a majority of voters can never win. To win a Democratic primary, a Democrat has to get conservative Democrats and moderate Democrats together to attract the support of the majority of those from their own party, and the Republicans have to do the same,” Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, which is pushing for the ballot measure’s passage, told me.

“So, the parties put forward nominees who have more of a broader appeal to Maine voters, rather than having nominees that appeal to a narrow base of passionate supporters.”

RCV makes it harder for deeply divisive fringe candidates in a major party to pull off a coup; so, it encourages politicians to cross the aisle and build coalitions to expand their bases, Bailey explained. Instead of division, it promotes consensus.

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America’s history of ranked-choice voting dates back to the 1910s, when some cities adopted a version of it to promote proportionally represented governments; in these cities, minority parties kept winning because the majority parties were split by internal factions (e.g. one Democrat would run against two Republicans, so the Democrat was getting elected by default due to vote splitting). Twenty-four cities had RCV between 1914 and 1961, according to a paper published this year by Jack Santucci, a graduate student at Georgetown University.

This is a major motivating factor for Mainers who want to usher in RCV: For more than 50 years, no Maine governor has been elected for their first term with more than 50% of the votes, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. This is largely due to liberal ticket-splitting, and the fact that Maine is generally very third-party friendly (it’s one of only two states that has an independent U.S. Senator). Maine’s unique political climate is what helped current Republican Gov. Paul LePage win with 38% of the vote in 2010, and get reelected with 48% of the vote in 2014.

“The problem isn’t just that elections can be decided by a small minority of voters,” Adam Friedman, executive director of Massachusetts-based RCV advocacy group Citizens for Voter Choice, wrote in a 2010 Boston Globe op-ed. “If there happen to be multiple candidates whose views or political bases overlap, those candidates end up punishing each other. Meanwhile, a candidate who holds on to a loyal voter base—even a relatively small one—wins the entire election.”

“Time and again, our voting system rewards the candidates who are, in one way or another, outliers.”

“Time and again, our voting system rewards the candidates who are, in one way or another, outliers.”

- Adam Friedman, executive director of Citizens for Voter Choice

Sounds like a presidential nominee you know, right?

Another consequence of RCV, according to Committee for Ranked Choice Voting’s Bailey, is that third parties have a real shot at getting people to vote for them without being considered a “spoiler candidate” who takes votes away from a major candidate with similar politics (e.g. Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein and Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson). For this reason, some people may not vote for third parties because they see it as a wasted vote.

“You’re voting for someone you don’t really like because you don’t want the guy you like the least to win,” Jill Ward, president of the League of Women Voters of Maine, told me. “That’s how the system works right now.”

Worldwide, countries such as Ireland, Malta, and Australia already use ranked-choice voting in federal elections. Several other American cities have adopted it, too. However, a bill that would’ve allowed cities and counties to switch to RCV in California was recently vetoed by Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown, who said in a letter to the state Senate that it’s “overly complicated and confusing.”

Meanwhile in Portland, Maine’s biggest city, RCV has been used since 2011 to elect the mayor. Currently, 49% of Maine voters support the statewide measure, according to a new poll conducted by the Portland Press Herald. Only 51% is needed to make RCV state law come Tuesday.

“My hope is that if we win this here, that it opens the doors for other communities to say, ‘Hey, Maine’s doing this; maybe it’s something we can look at,” Bailey said.