August 8, 2013

Alan Caron: Old two-party election system fails us, so let's change it

Runoffs or a new primary system could help Maine elect leaders with the skills to win majorities.

Last week I wrote about the disturbing fact that since 1974, all of our six newly elected governors won with less than 50 percent of the vote. Four won with less than 40 percent.

That marks a significant historical shift in Maine, and is almost surely a contributing factor to our economic stagnation over those 40 years. As our competitors in the global economy have become more focused and better organized, we've moved in the opposite direction.

How that happened is entirely traceable to the rise of independent candidates in statewide elections, and the slow shrinkage of the parties. Now, we regularly find ourselves with anywhere from three to seven candidates for governor, with the winner being the one with the largest fraction of voters, rather than a majority.

Meanwhile, our elections system, which is built for just two major-party candidates, hasn't caught up.

That is creating a ripple effect that our founders never foresaw, but that we're beginning to see vividly.

It regularly installs a CEO who has no mandate for action, but does have a majority in opposition. It gives marginal but loud leaders outsized influence. And it can produce winners without the most basic leadership skills, including listening and forging agreements.

The problem begins during the campaign stage. Once candidates know they can win with as little as 30 percent of the votes, there is no incentive to speak to anyone outside of their own narrow bases and every encouragement to repeat dogmas and inflame passions and fears.

What would happen if we changed elections to produce governors with the support of majorities, which is the way it worked in Maine for 130 years?

First, the language of the campaigns would change, as candidates were forced to seek votes from a much broader pool.

We would see more appeals to common ground than to unyielding confrontation. And we might even see the re-emergence of big ideas and vision replacing sharpened little knives and anger.

Here are several options we ought to be taking a hard look at. None is perfect, and all will be opposed by the defenders of the status quo, but some combination of them would move us forward.

Instant runoff elections, which worked well in Portland. You mark your ballot for your favorite candidate and also your second or even third choice.

If your first hope goes down in flames, finishing in last place, your second choice gets your vote in an automatic second counting.

That process continues, by eliminating the last-place candidate and redistributing votes for that person, until one candidate has a majority. It requires new voting equipment, but not an additional voting day.

Standard runoff elections. If we can't bring ourselves to trust computers to reassign our votes, than we could add a run-off election in September. That would allow us to whittle the field down to the top two vote-getters, who would then face off in November.

It would mean that people who vote in party primaries would have to vote three times, while most others would vote twice.

Open primaries. This would replace the party primaries with a June vote open to all, with the top two going on to face each other in November. It would give the 40 percent of unenrolled voters, who are currently disenfranchised in June, a voice in selecting the top two nominees.

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