Can ranked-choice voting heal American democracy? Maine may lead the way.

Lee Drutman (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2),
Lee Drutman (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2),

Those who are fed up with the dysfunction of American politics have their eye on a little-noticed ballot question in Maine on Tuesday, where voters will decide whether to keep an innovation called ranked-choice voting.

Electoral reform experts believe ranked-choice voting has the potential to shake up the two-party system without destabilizing American politics. It is seen as a way to give voters more choices, reduce polarization, and make room for candidates to run as independents.

In this system, voters rank their preferences in order from a slate of candidates. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the one with the least first-choice support is declared eliminated, and those ballots are redistributed according to their respective second choices. The process continues until a candidate emerges with a majority.

Though a handful of cities have used ranked-choice voting in local elections, Maine is the first state to use it in a statewide election. Voters will have the option to rank their choices from favorite to least favorite in Tuesday’s primaries. They also have the option to choose just one candidate.

But there has been resistance to the innovation, and to keep ranked-choice voting in future elections Mainers will have to approve it in a referendum on Tuesday as well. Republicans in the state have put up roadblocks to the measure because they see it as a partisan issue that will disadvantage them.

The impact of ranked-choice voting, however, is bigger than one state. It is part of a larger aim by some to rescue national politics from its death spiral of increasing extremism, with little representation for the majority of Americans who don’t see politics as zero sum.

“Everything is geared toward winning the next election. It’s not towards Congress as functioning as an institution. It’s towards Republicans or Democrats winning,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America think tank in its political reform program.

“People are really frustrated with the two-party system. You look at polling, two-thirds of people say, we need more. We need more parties,” Drutman said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast.

How would ranked choice change this?

It would reduce the chance that a candidate for office who appeals only to a minority of voters could be elected. This has become a problem in modern politics as changes to campaign finance laws and the weakening of political parties over the last two decades has increased the number of candidates in statewide and presidential campaigns. The list of potential candidates in the Democratic presidential primary in 2020, for example, is at least 20 names long.

What often happens in crowded primaries is that the majority of voters split their vote among a handful of candidates, allowing room for a demagogue or extremist candidate to win with the support of only a third of voters. That’s exactly what happened in the 2016 Republican primary, when Donald Trump won despite only having the support of one-third of Republican primary voters.

Ranked-choice voting could also encourage more independent candidates to run for office. Voters in a three-way election often avoid voting for a third party candidate because they see it as merely helping the candidate they don’t like. But if they were able to rank their choices and knew that their vote would go to their preferred alternative if the third-party candidate lost, then they would feel more emboldened to vote for that independent.

Many voters in 2016, faced with what amounted to a binary choice of Trump or Clinton, voted against the candidate they least disliked. Although there were minor-party candidates on the ballot in every state, none of them came close to winning. But ranked-choice voting could create an opportunity for an “everyone’s second choice” candidate to prevail, which presumably would lead to less hard feelings among people who supported one of the losers.

Maine Republicans likely oppose ranked-choice voting because they have been able to win statewide elections over the past decade only when a Democrat and an Independent candidate split the support of a majority of voters. Republican Gov. Paul LePage won the governorship twice with less than 50 percent of the vote, benefitting from the presence of an independent candidate both times.

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Drutman has further proposed changing congressional districts by making them larger and allowing voters in each district to elect more than one representative. This would give minority communities greater representation and imbue the act of voting with more meaning, he believes.

“The system would give conservatives in New York City, for instance, a say in who gets chosen for the House: They would be likely to win a seat or two. Likewise, liberals in red Alabama districts might be able to elect a candidate,” Drutman wrote in a piece last year for Vox.

“What we have in most parts of the country are one-party elections. No wonder voting rates are so low. No wonder people are disenchanted with our system. No wonder participation is minimal,” Drutman said on “The Long Game.”

Drutman said that political parties are “essential to democracy” and that it is good when parties are strong. The exception, he said, is when you have “a nationalized two-party system,” because it increases polarization and reduces the ability of the government to solve basic problems.

The solution is to break the chokehold of the two parties on power, Drutman said.


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