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Election Reform in Maine

You can get there from here
by Peter White

Oct 25, 2016 | Election 2016, Politics

Illustration by 
Edel Rodriguez

Squeezed between Quebec and New Brunswick, and sticking up into Canada like a sore thumb, is the improbable state of Maine. The average income in Maine is $5,000 less than in the rest of the United States, and only a quarter of its residents have college degrees. Portland and Bangor have internet service but overall Maine is an anachronism.

Because it’s, like nowhere, Maine doesn’t figure much in national politics. Until now, that is. Today Maine is ground zero of an electoral-reform campaign that has the potential to repair our dysfunctional democracy. On the ballot this November, Question 5 asks voters to replace the state’s “first-past-the-post” election rules with a new voting system called ranked choice voting—a variation on “preferential voting.” If the measure passes, Maine will become the first state in the nation to adopt preferential voting. The political ramifications could be enormous.

One of RCV’s leading promoters is a native firebrand, Diane Russell, a Democrat who represents a Portland district in the Maine House of Representatives.

Recently, she took the microphone at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia to inveigh against superdelegates. The Democratic National Committee had tilted the primaries with Clinton superdelegates, so Bernie Sanders had to trudge through sand while Hillary Clinton travelled by limousine. In Russell’s mind, that is the antithesis of democracy.

Democrats in Maine and 20 other states had passed resolutions to amend party rules on superdelegates, or to get rid of them altogether. Yet Russell knew that an abolitionist motion would fail. Instead she introduced an amendment that would award superdelegates in proportion to the votes the candidates get in state primaries.

Ultimately the Sanders and Clinton factions agreed on a “Unity Compromise” that binds two-thirds of the superdelegates to results of state primaries and caucuses. Ranked choice voting in Maine, on the other hand, is a fight Russell plans to flat-out win.

“In terms of the movement and where we are, the timing of this could not have been better because it’s going to be timed with the presidential election. And if we win, we set a model that other states can replicate,” says Russell.

Russell describes RCV as a paradigm shift that would have changed the dynamics of this year’s election.

“Sanders can’t run as an Independent right now because he knows that it would be a vote for Trump,” she said.

Maine hasn’t figured much in national politics. Until now, that is.

RCV, which allows voters to cast “ranked’ votes for more than one candidate, would change that. “People could vote for Bernie Sanders in the first place and Hillary Clinton second, or vice versa. There wouldn’t be this back and forth animosity or this question of whether Bernie Sanders people are actually going to vote for Hillary. They would be able to vote for the person they want and then vote for the other person for second place.”

“This is a very large bill,” says Republican State Representative Heather Sirocki. “It involves the governor, 151 seats in the Maine House, 35 state Senate seats, two U.S. Senate seats, and two U.S. Congressional seats.” Sirocki has argued that Maine’s election rules have been in place for 136 years. They work, people understand them, and if something isn’t broke don’t fix it.

Yet under those rules, Russell feels shut out of a political system that is not working.

“Why it matters is because people are frustrated and left out of their democracy,” Russell said. “People want to be able to vote for their hopes and their dreams and right now they continue to be told they have to vote the lesser of two evils.”


How it works

The rules of traditional elections are simple. Every voter marks a ballot for a single candidate for each office. The ballots are totaled, and a winner is announced for each office, unless there is no clear winner and a run-off must be held later.

With RCV you can vote for multiple candidates on a ballot, as long as you rank each one by preference.

Suppose there are five candidates in a governor’s race. Voters cast ballots printed to allow them to rank candidates one through five. Ballots are counted and the first-choice votes on those ballots are awarded to the respective candidates. If there is no majority winner, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and the eliminated candidate’s second-choice ballots are awarded to the candidates for whom they were cast. The process of elimination and reallocation of votes continues until one candidate has a majority. In this way, RCV eliminates the need for run-off elections.

Minority and women candidates tend to do better with this method, as opposed to a first-past-the-post system, which yields a plurality winner, more often than not an older, white male.


Pros and Cons

The Maine League of Women Voters supports the measure because “it allows voters to vote for their favorite candidate without fear of helping elect their least favorite candidate. It minimizes strategic voting and eliminates the spoiler effect.” The spoiler effect is the bane of independent or third-party candidates, who often fail when voters cast their votes for one of the two major-party candidates in order to eliminate the other.

George Smith worked for several Maine Republicans and for 18 years was the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. He was one of the original signatories of the ballot measure.

Smith believes RCV will discourage negative campaigns. “I’ve looked at the places that have it and I’m convinced it really limits negative advertising because you are appealing to voters who will agree with you but you don’t want to aggravate the other people because you want them to pick you second. To me that is one of the biggest benefits,” Smith said.

Russell agrees.

“All this money that gets spent on ads that say, ‘do not vote for this person, this person is a bad person’ and ‘don’t vote for that person, that person is a bad person.’ Well, eventually . . . what you hear is ‘don’t vote.’”

She believes preferential voting will force parties and candidates to actually offer compelling messages, which will change how money is spent in elections.

That could be a big change. In 2016, according to the Sunlight Foundation, campaigns are awash with $1.4 billion in Super PAC money, $951 million in party committee money, $773 million for House candidates, $439 million for Senate candidates, $1 billion from other PACs, and that’s not counting billions in dark money. A lot of that money is being spent on negative campaign ads.

Critics often cite two California elections in 2010 as examples of what’s wrong with RCV.

San Francisco, where elections are officially nonpartisan, adopted ranked choice voting in 2002. In 2010, the 10th district supervisor’s contest drew 21 candidates. None of them got more than 12 percent of the vote in the initial tally, and Malia Cohen, who placed third in the first round, was the eventual winner after 20 rounds of counting. Critics like Sirocki have observed that 70 percent of voters didn’t vote for Cohen.

Across the Bay Bridge in Oakland, in the same year, Jean Quan was elected as the city’s first woman mayor in a 10-candidate race. Quan polled a distant second in the first tally but pulled ahead of the initial leader when she got a lot of votes from the third-place candidate, who was also a progressive. Quan served only one term, but the election demonstrated that RCV can eliminate the spoiler effect in a three-way race. In fact, a split of votes between two progressives eventually combined to elect one of them in the final tally.

The Bay Area elections were unusual because there were a large number of candidates in nonpartisan races and none of them got anywhere near a plurality in the first tally. Since 2000, more than 100 elections have been held in the United States using ranked choice voting, and nine times out of 10 the highest vote-getter in the initial tally went on to win the election.

Proportional representation, from which ranked choice voting is derived, was first introduced in the United States during the Progressive era (1900-1930), and in fits and starts, gained and then lost ground.

Around 1900, a Proportional Representation League started campaigning to introduce preferential voting in the United States. Its first success was in Ashtabula, Ohio, in 1915. By 1936, cities from Sacramento to all of New York City’s five boroughs except Staten Island had adopted proportional representation.

“This is not about helping Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or third parties. It’s about making our democracy work better.”

Yet proportional representation found no friends in Tammany Hall and among machine politicians in other American cities where control of local government was often, but not always, in the hands of the Democratic Party. The backlash was immediate. Using one of the progressive movement’s own reform tools, the local referendum, proportional voting’s natural enemies began trying to repeal it wherever it had managed to gain a foothold.

Forty-nine repeal measures were placed on city ballots between 1920 and 1961, some multiple times. Eventually, repeal efforts succeeded in 21 cities. However, beginning around 2000, reform efforts in several cities led them to adopt ranked choice voting. Today the ballot initiative, the Progressive era reform mechanism once used to dispose of PR voting, is restoring it. Going to the public is critical.

“Asking politicians to change the way they got elected in the first place isn’t really where the decision needs to be made. It’s by the people and how they want to elect their politicians. And that’s why we took it to the people this November,” Kyle Bailey said.

Bailey is a thirty-something political organizer from Georgia who has spent much of the last two years crisscrossing Maine to educate voters about ranked choice voting. He’s lost count but has probably organized 400 meetings.

“This is not about helping Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or third parties. It’s about making our democracy work better and that’s the kind of conversations I’ve had with people,” he says.

The conversations appear to be working. The “Yes on 5 in Maine” campaign has gathered 450 endorsements and attracted no organized opposition.


Constitutional Obstacles

Sirocki claims that traditional first-past-the-post elections may not be perfect but they are legal. “We are putting a ballot measure before the electorate that is blatantly unconstitutional,” she says.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, issued an eight-page opinion in March concluding, “It may not be possible to implement ranked choice voting as envisioned by this legislation without amending the Maine Constitution.”

Mills points to three conflicts with Maine’s constitution. Currently, a candidate can win office in Maine with a plurality, not a majority of votes. With RCV a plurality is not enough to win an election. The second problem relates to “how ballots are counted and by whom [local vs. state].” And third, in the event of a tie vote for governor, the state constitution requires the legislature to determine the winner. A provision in the RCV proposal requires a tie to be broken by the flip of a coin.

While all of these conflicts can be resolved, they may not be. Maine’s legislators might not be willing to change the constitution, just as they were not willing to vote on the ballot measure (although they could have). Maine’s voters, even if they pass RCV, might not want to amend the constitution either. If the constitution is not changed, there will be a court challenge at some point, most likely from a candidate who gets a plurality in the first round but ultimately loses the election to a second- or third-place candidate.


RCV and the Berners

Liz Smith, 36, grew up in the Bay Area, worked at NASA for four years making scientific films and then spent eight years at sea doing ocean conservation research. Now she runs the Conservation Media Group, a startup NGO in Camden, on Maine’s rocky coast.

Smith, who is new to politics, was a Sanders delegate to Maine’s Democratic state convention and a national Sanders delegate in Philadelphia.

“I held out hope to the very end,” she said. “The first two days of the convention felt like we sort of got steamrolled and not heard.”

At that point, Smith said, the Sanders camp divided into three groups. “Third-degree Berners are folks who are like ‘screw this, I’m going somewhere else.’ And first-degree Berners are folks who love Bernie but they are fine with Hillary Clinton, too. Smith felt the Bern to the second degree. With hundreds of other Sanders delegates, she walked out of the building after the roll call vote on Tuesday morning, returning to Maine dejected but determined.

“It wasn’t meant as a walkout like we are leaving the Democratic Party. It was a stand against being railroaded and basically being told that none of our voices or our opinions mattered,” she said.

“So that’s where I am at, Smith says. “I am fighting for folks on the Bernie end of things to be heard within the party system.

“If you look at how the younger generation voted for Bernie . . . a lot of that had to do with its anti-establishment vibe and the idea that we really need to shake up the system.”

In Maine, Liz Smith, Diane Russell, George Smith, and a cadre of reformers are shaking up the system.


Peter White is a writer in Tennessee.

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