BANGOR, Maine — A day after a presidential debate that they thought was decidedly unpresidential, some Question 5 backers stepped before the cameras on Tuesday to advocate for ranked-choice voting and the political civility they think it would create.
Augusta Mayor David Rollins, Bangor Mayor Sean Faircloth and Brewer Mayor Bev Uhlenhake held a press conference at the Bangor Public Library urging Mainers to vote yes on Election Day to support the complex algorithm of vote redistribution.
Had ranked-choice voting been employed in this election, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton might have treated each other in a more civilized manner, Rollins said.
“I was very disappointed just in the demeanor of it. It was not presidential, not statesmanlike,” Rollins said of the debate, calling Clinton and Trump’s conduct a poor example for younger people.
Rollins said American democracy is in “a dangerous place” with discourse as crude as Clinton and Trump displayed.
“I think the future of the country is at risk,” Rollins said. “We used to be a country where we talked about ideas. Now we’re more concerned in what not to do or who is going to get credit for something.”
Ranked-choice voting will restore civility, its backers believe, because in races where there are more than two candidates, voters will indicate their most favored candidate and rank the rest. As Uhlenhake explained it, if no candidate receives an outright majority after all ballots are counted, the candidate who came in last is eliminated before the votes are recounted, and his or her supporters’ second-choice votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate gets a majority of the vote.
The process favors coalition-building and compromise over conflict. Candidates won’t be eager to alienate each other because second choices will have a chance to be elected.
“It is clear that people are fed up with politicians that only care about their core constituencies,” Uhlenhake said.
Critics have said that ranked-choice voting doesn’t accomplish its advocates’ goals. They doubt that it will curb uncivil discourse and claim that it could take weeks before winners are determined. Research has shown that the more complicated ballot can reduce voter turnout or cause “voter fatigue,” which leads to some ballots getting disqualified.
“I don’t think you can overcome the deep ideological gap that exists in this country today by what amounts to an electoral gimmick,” said Gordon Weil, a contributing writer at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting and a Question 5 opponent. “I think democracy will suffer because people will no longer be electing who they voted for. There are other ways to deal with plural elections if you don’t like them.”
“We could have a top-two primary. You could have a primary in which everybody ran and then the top two opponents could run against one another in a general election,” Weil added.
In the U.S., 39 states, including Maine, hold plurality elections, where the person who gets the most votes wins, regardless of whether they got over 50 percent or not. The rest of the states have run-offs among all those who finish with less than 50 percent of the total vote or only those who finish in the top two, Weil said.
The referendum measure targets implementation for 2018 and Attorney General Janet Mills has flagged two constitutional concerns that could further hinder enactment — that it doesn’t allow for plurality elections and it relies on state and not municipal officials to count ballots. Republican opponents have said that’s a reason to vote against it.
Consensus candidates like those proposed by Question 5 supporters have been elected president. Among the most famous examples are Republicans Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower. William Seward of New York and Henry Cabot Lodge were the leading GOP presidential candidates at the 1860 and 1952 Republican conventions, respectively, but were pushed aside by party leaders who felt Lincoln and Eisenhower were more acceptable to the majority of voters.
Lincoln won the nomination on his convention’s third vote. Eisenhower won on the first, after his forces won a battle to seat his delegates.