In forty-nine states and the District of Columbia, if you decide you’re going to vote for Libertarian Party nominee Jo Jorgensen, Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins, Kanye West, or any of the other minor independent candidates for President, beware of letting your partisan friends know. They will tell you that you are throwing away your vote and allowing the most EVIL major party candidate in the history of evil candidates to win. The outcome will be your fault even if you live in a state like Utah or Rhode Island, where your state’s electoral votes are not in doubt at all.
Many voters struggle with this question of whether they should vote for their preferred third-party candidates or vote for the lesser of the two evils on the ballot, even when they live in landslide states where it doesn’t matter.
However, Maine has become a state where voters can have their cake and eat it too, at least in races for federal office. Starting this election, voters can vote for their preferred third-party candidate and ensure that they don’t contribute to the election of the evil they fear most. In 2016, Maine approved Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). In 2018, RCV was used Congressional races, and this year, the voting method will be used for the first time in the U.S. Senate and Presidential election.
Under RCV, rather than voting for a single candidate, voters have the option of ranking their preferred candidates. If no candidate gets a majority, then there is an instant runoff. Those who voted for the last-place candidate then have their vote count for their second-place candidate until that candidate is eliminated. This process continues until someone gets a majority.
This played out in the 2018 U.S. House race in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Republican Congressman Bruce Polguin beat his Democratic Challenger 46.3 percent to 45.6 percent. However, with more than 8 percent of the vote going to independent candidates after the second-choice preferences were counted, Golden prevailed 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent.
Maine is the beginning for Ranked Choice Voting, but it’s not the end. This November, Alaska and Massachusetts will consider ballot questions to implement a form of ranked choice voting.
The system has several advantages. As referenced above, citizens can vote for Independent candidates without fear of throwing away their vote. Also, it’ll encourage a better class of independent candidates to run for office. Most third-party candidates aren’t that serious or credible because serious and credible Independents imagine if they run, all they’ll manage to do is get the candidate they like the least elected. RCV removes that worry for candidates and voters alike.
Also, it encourages candidates to treat one another better and a fairer matter. Under an RCV system, major party candidates would do well to respect independent candidates in case they need their supporters to win in a second round.
Major party candidates would do well to be careful about how they campaign against each other. Our “first past the post” system allows campaigns to play to the lowest common denominator. However, in a Ranked Choice Voting system, a major party candidate who makes a campaign toxic may become the candidate that minor party voters hate most and therefore hand the election to their opponents.
Ranked Choice Voting discourages some of the more cynical gaming of the system we’ve seen in recent years. For example, Republicans have helped the far-left Green Party get on the ballot in many states to hurt Democratic candidate chances by splitting the progressive vote. In an RCV system, that doesn’t make sense because Green Party voters’ second preference is far more likely to go to the Democrats than the Republicans.
Short-Term Benefit to the Democrats But Long-Term Opportunities for Independents
Ranked Choice Voting will likely be a short-term benefit to the Democrats in this election. In the U.S. Senate election, Democratic challenger Sara Gideon leads Republican U.S. Senator Susan Collins, but only one poll has shown her crossing the fifty percent mark. This will likely head to an instant runoff with the second preference of progressive independents determining Collins’ fate.
The statewide results in Maine are not in doubt. However, Maine awards one electoral vote to the winner of each of its two congressional districts, and the race for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District’s electoral vote is quite close. None of the polls have shown either candidate with a majority. Donald Trump may end up narrowly ahead after the first round of counting in the Second District. It’s also quite possible he will lose that electoral vote in the instant runoff. Biden is most likely to pick up the votes from the backers of Libertarian Candidate Jo Jorgensen, Green Candidate Howie Hawkins, and Alliance Candidate Rocky De La Fuente.
This is one electoral vote and may not mean anything, but in a close election, it might. National Review’s Jim Geraghty tweeted out an electoral map that would produce a 269-269 tie that would throw the election into the House of Representatives. The map featured Nebraska’s 2nd District voting for Biden and Maine’s 2nd voting for Trump. There’s a narrow chance that brand of chaos will be thrust on the country. It’s equally possible for the same map to happen only with Maine’s 2nd District going for Biden once the instant runoff’s completed and Biden winning a 270-268 electoral college victory as a result.
This doesn’t mean this will always work out for the Democrats. Maine has elected an independent as a Governor and as a U.S. Senator, and it creates a grand opportunity for independent candidates.
Had the Ranked Choice Voting system been around in 1992, it’s doubtful whether Bill Clinton would have won all four of Maine’s electoral votes. Clinton won 38.77 percent to Ross Perot’s 30.44 percent and George H.W. Bush’s 30.39 percent, and Perot came within five points of winning Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Republicans hated Clinton. It’s not far-fetched to imagine a scenario where Bush voters’ second preferences gave Perot the win in Maine’s Second District and maybe in the state, which would mean Clinton would have been given one electoral vote from Maine rather than four.
That dynamic will mean if any centrist runs for President as an independent, they’ll probably spend a good amount of time in Maine trying to capture electoral votes because the state will have given them the opportunity.
Is This a Liberal Trap?
The Ranked Choice Voting system, particularly in Maine, has a lot of critics among the GOP. Republicans failed to meet all the requirements to force a referendum on using RCV in the Presidential election. The “Republican” advocate for it in a bi-partisan USA Today opinion piece advocating for RCV was former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, who is no one’s idea of a conservative. Many progressive cities have embraced RCV. Combined with that and how it’s cost Republican a House Seat and may cost them a Senate seat and an electoral vote, is RCV a liberal trap?
In a word, no. Ranked Choice Voting has benefitted Democrats in Maine because Maine is in one of the most progressive regions in the entire country. In other areas of the country, it could just as easily be a boon to Republicans. For years, Republicans have whined whenever Democrats won an election with less than a majority that an Independent or Libertarian candidate “stole” votes from the Republican nominee, leading to a Democratic being elected. That won’t happen under an instant runoff, although we may find out that much of the whining originated from political operatives offering an alibi for lousy candidates and campaigns.
The first past the post system has produced many problems in elections and limited choice, which has led to many frustrations for the American people. Ranked Choice Voting is probably one of the least intrusive and most benign ways to remedy those problems. This system can work, and it can work better than what we have now, but parties have to adapt to the system to succeed.
In Maine, Republicans have chosen not to engage with the system. Pologuin was given the opportunity during a 2018 congressional debate to state which of his opponents would be his second preference. A smart play would have been to mention one of the third-party candidates in hopes of making a favorable impression with their voters and getting some of their voters to mark him as their second preference. Instead, Polguin disrespected both third party candidates and bet on winning via a lawsuit if he lost the runoff. He brought the lawsuit before a Trump-appointed federal judge and lost.
The Republicans would also do well to stop helping Green Party ballot access efforts as Green Party voters will not mark the GOP as a second preference., It would make more sense to assist parties who can reach voters who couldn’t be persuaded to vote Republican on the first ballot but might consider marking Republicans as their second preference. This tactic would be similar to countries where ideologically similar parties form coalitions. It would be far less corrosive than the GOP helping extremists who they disagree with getting on the ballot to hurt other parties.
While many on the right are reluctant to change the way we vote, Ranked Choice Voting holds a great promise to improve voting and politics in this country, and it deserves thoughtful consideration.