NORTH YARMOUTH – Majority rules — but not in Maine politics.
I am thrilled that the Portland Charter Commission has proposed rank choice voting for the city’s mayor. Rank choice voting is one of the most exciting electoral reforms in the United States.
With this electoral method, the commission wants to ensure that a majority of people voting approve of the elected mayor. Our current system in Maine allows for “minority rules” in many elections.
This past month we selected two candidates for governor in the two party primaries. In the Republican Party, a majority of voters (62.1 percent) voted for someone other than Paul LePage. In the Democratic primary, a majority of voters (64.7 percent) voted for someone other than Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell. Yet these are the two candidates who are now the nominees.
Our current governor, John Baldacci, did not garner a majority of votes in either of his gubernatorial elections, winning with 47 percent of the votes in 2002 and only 38 percent in 2006.
We use majority rules for referendums when there are only two choices, but we use plurality rules when there are multiple candidates — whoever receives the largest percentage of votes wins.
In the recent Republican primary, Paul LePage won with 37.9 percent of the vote; with seven candidates in the race, he could have received as little as 18 percent of the vote and still won the election.
With the primaries over, we now have narrowed the field to the two party candidates — but that won’t matter. We have three independent candidates running against the two nominees this fall, and, as in 2002 and 2006, we can again elect a governor with far less than majority support.
The Portland Charter Commission has recognized the problem with plurality elections. So have many other places in the country and the world. Many elections require a runoff election, so the top two vote-getters need to compete in a runoff election at a later date in which the voters choose between those two candidates.
Majority rules, and the candidate who receives more than 50 percent of the vote wins. But run-off elections cost twice as much, and voter turnout often goes way down.
Rank choice voting is also known as instant runoff voting. On Election Day, you can vote for your favorite candidate, and you also can vote for your second favorite candidate, and, if necessary when there are many candidates, for your third choice.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first count, then there is an instant runoff. The candidate with the lowest number of votes is then dropped, and the votes are recounted using the second choice of those who voted for that losing candidate.
The voting rounds continue, dropping the candidate with the least votes each round and re-counting the votes, until one receives a majority of votes, more than 50 percent, and wins.
The result is that more than half the people voting endorse this leader, even if he or she was not all the voters’ first choice — and so majority rules.
Some charge that you can still have someone win with less than a majority, because some voters do not choose to select a second or third choice on the ballot. But this means they do not choose to have a vote in the second round if their candidate comes in last.
As noted above, voter turnout often goes down in a runoff election, even if it is held as a separate election instead of an instant runoff.
The winner of a rank choice voting election wins with a majority — more than 50 percent — of those voters who choose to participate in rank choice voting by choosing a second or third choice when they vote.
While there are initial software costs and other challenges for rank choice voting, the benefits are great. We would really be electing a candidate that a majority prefers.
Gov. Baldacci may still have won two terms, and Paul LePage and Libby Mitchell may have won their respective primaries, with an instant runoff voting process. We will never know. But with our current system, we could elect a governor again with a majority voting against that candidate, giving us “minority rule.”
I hope that the Portland Charter Commission members and city voters not only support the rank choice voting proposal, but also that we build on this idea so that a majority of voters can vote for and endorse our future leaders and their visions for Maine.