Could ranked-choice voting help lower the heat of our political discourse and reduce the extreme partisanship pervading the country? We think so.

Without a doubt, our political life is deeply fractured. We seem profoundly stratified into different groups – each with its own perception of basic realities. The common foundation for our public debate has been shaken, and the institutions that moderate our dialogue function poorly if at all.

Governance takes place in the middle, through dialogue, collaboration and compromise with one’s opponents. But the middle has been hollowed out. Compromise is heresy, and relationships “across the aisle” appear fractured beyond repair.

A sizable segment of our country feels that our politics does not work for them, and it’s easy to see why. Many are ready to throw a wrench into the machinery of democracy. Others just stay home on Election Day.

Sadly, these observations are becoming commonplace. Less common are any ideas for restoring a constructive public dialogue. But one such idea is unfolding in Maine, and that is ranked-choice voting.

The June primary was Maine’s first foray into ranked-choice voting. The results were promising. Candidates were notably cordial to each other, and two even broadcast an unprecedented joint endorsement. A large majority of voters expressed their views of two, three or four candidates on the ballot, carefully ordering their favorites to use their new voting power to the fullest.


So how does ranked-choice voting work to foster civil dialogue and reduce polarization?

Within the mainstream of civil dialogue, a wide range of perspectives should be expected. If a range of views is desirable in a democracy, ranked-choice voting is the voting system that best allows voters to register their judgment of that spectrum of views. Ranked-choice voting opens the door to more complete expression of voters’ political options and a more nuanced evaluation of which views match their own.

This system offers a constructive response to extremism. By ordering a variety of choices, instead of a binary yes-no decision, ranked-choice voting reminds us that our own viewpoint might not be the only one with merit, and that humility has a place alongside righteous partisanship.

Ranked-choice voting is no panacea, but when fully implemented for a wide range of races, it can test the theory that giving more power – and responsibility – to voters could help pull us back from the brink of civic breakdown.

Here in Maine, we’ve just begun. It will take time to assess the benefits of ranked-choice voting, but its full potential will never be realized until we can use it in all major races, including general election for governor.

Unfortunately, on ranked-choice voting, the voters are ahead of the courts and the Maine Constitution. The citizen initiative that brought ranked-choice voting in 2016 applied to the general gubernatorial and legislative elections, but a 2017 review by the state supreme court deemed that provision unconstitutional.


The solution is a constitutional amendment to permit ranked-choice in the general election for state offices – something the League of Women Voters has been promoting. But this solution will take time – and support from legislators in both parties.

The amendment will be worth the effort, in no small part because of ranked-choice voting’s potential to ameliorate the destructive tone of our discourse.

Forceful advocacy and pointed opposition to outrageous views and conduct are critically important in a thriving democracy. But that cannot be the end of the story.

No one strategy will be enough to re-establish civility and constructive discourse. But a more comprehensive way to vote can remind us of the power of the individual ballot and the hope for a more perfect democracy – indeed, the imperative to fight for one.

Maine is not immune from the woes affecting our country. But as Louis Brandeis wrote long ago, one of the virtues of the American system is that it lets states serve as the laboratories of democracy.

It is not enough to hope for a more perfect democracy. We have to work for it, generation after generation. And perfecting our ranked-choice voting system is one way to do that.

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