Judge Lance Walker’s latest ruling on ranked-choice voting in Maine’s congressional elections should give the system’s opponents a cue. It’s time for them to stop trying to stop the system twice adopted by voters — and the same should go for other efforts to limit voting.
Maine RCV opponents claim the system disenfranchises voters, but the evidence doesn’t support their conclusions. They also portray voters in an insulting way.
As Judge Walker put it in denying a preliminary injunction last week, the expert witness used by the plaintiff exhibited “equal parts inductive reasoning and condescension.”
In this latest attempt to scuttle RCV, Professor Nolan McCarty argued that it was irrational to do what some of the plaintiffs (and the majority of 2018 voters) did in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District: rank one or two candidates. Similarly, the expert witness for RCV opponents in the 2018 lawsuit, Professor James Gimpel, claimed people who ranked Tiffany Bond or Will Hoar first in the congressional race must have been confused or unknowledgeable.
But it doesn’t take any expertise to think of rational reasons why either set of voters voted as they did.
In every election, some voters pick candidates with little chance of winning as a protest vote — although, it should be pointed out, it’s more likely those candidates can win in RCV systems versus plurality voting.
And, as for just voting only for someone likely to make the top two, that’s what 2018 incumbent U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin announced he’d do in a congressional debate. That didn’t mean he was confused nor did he disenfranchise himself.
As Walker noted, the system allows voters to rank as many candidates as they want, for whatever reasons they want.
Voters found plenty of choices acceptable for them in the 2018 RCV contests. In 2018, according to McCarty’s analysis, fewer voters left their ballots blank in the ranked-choice U.S. House and U.S. Senate races than the governor’s race, which didn’t use RCV.
Ranked choice opponents argue voters are disenfranchised because some don’t participate in the final runoff between the top two candidates. In the parlance of RCV, these voters’ ballots are “exhausted.”
In the 2018 2nd Congressional District race, 4.97 percent of ballots were exhausted as they included rankings for only Tiffany Bond and/or Will Hoar. Were those voters disenfranchised? Of course not, no more than voters who selected losing candidates in plurality elections — typically a lot more than 4.97 percent — where the winner got a majority or a less than half of the vote.
Instead of the instant runoff of ranked-choice voting, Maine could have decided to hold a separate runoff election between the top two finishers weeks or months later. As Walker pointed out last week, no one has raised any constitutional concerns about that system disenfranchising voters.
Besides that, Walker observed, “in a runoff election, voter turnout, more often than not, is reduced by more than 10 percent, a significantly higher percentage rate than the percentage of exhausted ballots in Maine’s RCV elections.”
It’s truly unfortunate RCV has become a partisan issue. After all, this election system has been used in Australia for over a century and hasn’t favored one party over another.
Nor should other policies and practices involving voters be partisan, but they have been. Maine Republicans voted to do away with election day voter registration in 2011; in a landslide vote, a People’s Veto kept it in place. In Maine and nationally unfounded claims of voter fraud have been used to pass laws making it harder to vote and have been used as rhetorical cudgels. Now President Donald Trump’s fight against vote by mail includes sabotaging the Postal Service because, he says, “They need that money in order to make the Postal Service work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots.”
No major political party has a perfect record on voting rights. After Reconstruction, Southern Democrats passed laws keeping Black people from voting. But then the national party turned to champion access to the ballot in the 1960s.
Now, whatever election system is being used, Republicans should stop trying to thwart voting and instead compete in the electoral arena with ideas and candidates most voters support.
Amy Fried is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.