What we learned about ranked-choice voting

November 27, 2018

Eric Pelkey writes from Maine on the introduction of a new system of voting that had a historic impact on its first time out.

IN ALL the wall-to-wall coverage of the 2018 midterm elections, a historic moment received relatively little national media attention: For the first time ever, a congressional race was decided using ranked-choice voting (RCV).

Democratic challenger Jared Golden eked out a victory over incumbent Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin for Maine’s 2nd congressional district seat after voters’ second choice preferences were tabulated.

At a time when states like Georgia, Florida, Kansas and North Dakota are actively suppressing the will of their states’ voters, Maine has demonstrated how to increase democracy at the ballot box. Activists around the country should rally around RCV as an alternative to the current undemocratic system.

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In November 2016, Maine voters approved an RCV referendum and then reaffirmed it in a subsequent election.

Although RCV proposals had been floated in the state for some time, the idea got more traction after far-right Republican Paul LePage became Maine’s governor in 2010 after winning less than 40 percent of the vote — and was reelected in 2014 with less than 50 percent of the vote. In both elections, third-party candidates received a significant portion of the vote, which was how the unpopular Tea Party Republican won with less than a majority.

Liberal opponents of LePage took two vastly different approaches to his victories.

Democratic Party loyalists sought to shame anyone who didn’t fall in line behind the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Progressive activists, on the other hand, opted to push for RCV, which offered a way out of the lesser-of-two-evils mindset, allowing voters to vote their conscience without being castigated as “spoilers.”

The irony is that RCV enabled Jared Golden’s win earlier this month, delivering the House seat to the Democrats and adding to the much-hyped “blue wave” in the midterm elections.

2018 WAS the first time RCV was instituted for Senate and House races in Maine. Few Mainers imagined that the system would play any significant role the first time it was used. Sen. Angus King — an independent who caucuses with the Democrats — was easily re-elected to the Senate.

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The 2nd congressional district race, however, was hotly contested and the most expensive House race in Maine history. Between Golden and Poliquin, more than $30 million was poured into the campaigns. Golden spent $131 per vote.

Poliquin ran ads claiming that Golden wanted welfare recipients to be able to purchase tattoos with taxpayer money, while Golden commercials slammed Poliquin for voting to take away health care and give huge tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans.

By the end of the evening on November 6, it was reported that Poliquin had received 46.41 percent of the vote and Golden 45.48 percent. Independent candidates Tiffany Bond and William Hoar captured a combined 8 percent of the total.

RCV requires that a candidate receive over 50 percent of the total vote in order to claim victory. Since Poliquin didn’t clear that hurdle, the second round was invoked, in which the second-choice preference of Bond and Hoar voters were allotted to either Golden or Poliquin.

After the Bangor Daily News reported that exit polling of Bond and Hoar supporters trended heavily toward Golden — upwards of 90 percent — and that the second round would almost certainly favor Golden, Poliquin’s campaign sued to prevent the second-round votes from being counted, but the maneuver failed.

When the second-round vote count was completed on November 15, Golden had defeated Poliquin by a 50.53 percent to 49.47 percent margin.

A defiant Poliquin has vowed to continue his fight against Golden’s win, claiming that he “won the constitutional ‘one-person, one-vote’” count announced on Election Night. Even though his lawsuit was thrown out by Judge Lance Walker, a conservative LePage appointee, Poliquin refuses to accept the outcome.

While Maine isn’t the only location to implement RCV — San Francisco used the system in its mayoral race this year — it is the first to put it into practice on a statewide level.

Despite the Republican propaganda, as a voter in Maine’s 2nd district, I can attest to the ease and clarity of the new voting system. Attempts by the right — and Democrats who are invested in the two-party system — to criticize RCV as too complicated and confusing are condescending and disingenuous.

Not only does RCV offer an opening for third-party candidates, but it also neutralizes the favored scare tactic of out-of-touch corporate Democrats.

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