Credit: George Danby

The hidden issue in the Nov. 6 state and federal elections will be ranked-choice voting.

That voting system is not on the ballot, yet the outcome of the elections may tell us a lot about its future.

Under Maine law, ranked-choice voting is now used in some elections but not for general election for governor or the Legislature. Its purpose is to eliminate the chance of a candidate winning with less than a majority of the vote. Ranked-choice voting applied in the June party primaries and will be used for the U.S. Senate and House races this fall.

But plurality victory — the candidate who has more votes than any other candidate wins — will still apply in state elections, and a winner lacking a simple majority could take the race for governor and in five legislative elections. There are more than two candidates in these elections.

To have ranked-choice voting apply to state elections would require an amendment to the Maine Constitution. And when that decision comes before voters, it is likely to be heavily influenced by this year’s voting.

In November, voters have the chance to make a direct comparison between the two systems: the traditional plurality vote and ranked-choice voting. The relative merits of each should be most obvious in the elections for governor and in the 2nd Congressional District.

In both cases, the frontrunners are the party nominees, but the races are now rated as being close. That means candidates now drawing relatively small support could be “spoilers” under the traditional system, able to take votes away from a candidate who otherwise would have won.

In the 2nd District, polling between incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden shows a tight race between them with two independent candidates on the ballot. When the ranked-choice voting tabulation is carried out, it should be possible to see if either or both blocked the election of one of the party candidates.

In the governor’s race, Democrat Janet Mills faces Republican Shawn Moody with two independents in the field as well. As the race matures, it may be possible to make a good guess about which of the party frontrunners is likely to lose support to one or the other of the independents.

Under the traditional and constitutional plurality voting system, an independent could spoil the election for a gubernatorial candidate who otherwise would have won. That might make a case for ranked-choice voting. Or the plurality winner could lose votes to independents but still win. That would make a case for plurality voting.

In the end, looking at what happens in the congressional and governor’s elections may educate Maine voters on the relative merits of the two voting systems. In turn, what we learn could influence a later decision on amending the Maine Constitution.

The governor’s election will also provide an interesting sidelight on money in politics. The two party candidates and independent Alan Caron are relying on their own campaign funds. State Treasurer Terry Hayes is a Clean Elections candidate, relying on public funds.

Hayes could become the spoiler in the governor’s race, thanks mostly to taxes paid by supporters of the two major party candidates. Clean Elections and ranked-choice voting seem to be linked, but both may serve to undercut traditional political competition. In this case, money’s influence on elections may not come from fat cats, but from ordinary taxpayers.

Finally, ranked-choice voting has been promoted because it supposedly will reduce bitter campaigns. Each candidate would want second-choice support from his or her opponent’s backers. That should reduce partisanship and divisiveness, it is claimed.

But look at the campaign spots run for Poliquin or Golden. It doesn’t look like sweetness and light. That’s partly because they are financed by outside groups whose sole goal is to have their candidate to win and who know that negative campaigning works. They care little about ranked-choice voting’s pious hopes.

This was to be expected. The pro-ranked-choice voting campaign itself was mostly financed by outside money.

When Mainers vote this year, they may not be aware of the hidden issue on the ballot. The voting system we use will be tested and, for the first time, this test will provide the chance for a critical, comparative review.

Gordon Weil is a former Harpswell selectman and state official who headed three state agencies under Gov. Joseph Brennan. Weil also was a correspondent for the Washington Post. He lives in Harpswell.

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