This article, by Carrie LeVan of Colby College, was originally posted in the Bangor Daily News on March 12, 2019.
Ranked-choice voting in Maine has not been without controversy. As there are currently nine bills with titles that propose an amendment to the state Constitution to allow for the expansion of ranked-choice voting, we can anticipate more “controversy.” Arguments made by both proponents and opponents to ranked-choice voting have been aired many times before. At this point, what seems most important to me, as legislators begin to debate a potential constitutional amendment, is not whether they should pursue such an amendment, but rather, whether Mainers support an expansion of ranked-choice voting.
This question is more complex than one might expect, largely because elites from both parties have done a great job framing ranked-choice voting through partisan lenses. Both parties have delivered critical cues to their base helping to guide voters in deciding whether ranked-choice voting is “good” or “bad.” So, when Maine’s voters are asked, as they were in a BDN/FairVote/Colby College exit poll in November, whether they want to expand ranked-choice voting to more of Maine’s elections, the results revealed that a majority of Democrats support this (around 80 percent) and a majority of Republicans want to get rid of ranked-choice voting completely (about 70 percent). These results are not surprising given the partisan rhetoric surrounding ranked-choice voting.
However, because ranked-choice voting has become a partisan issue, simply asking Maine’s voters whether they want to expand it seems to be missing the point. When we ask voters this question, their responses are simply echoes of the preferences of the two major parties. Instead, we should be asking Mainers what their preferences are toward the rule that ranked-choice voting implements, as in the “majority-rule.” Ranked-choice voting requires that the winning candidate receive a majority of the vote. Elections without ranked-choice voting require that the winning candidate simply receive the most votes, even if “the most” is not a majority of the votes counted. If we want to disentangle partisan framing of ranked-choice voting and get to the heart of the matter, we need to ask the voters their view of the majority requirement. Do Mainers want to require the winning candidate to receive at least 50 percent of the votes?
With this question, we get closer to Mainers’ true preferences on a possible constitutional amendment. So, with this question, we can unpack what Mainers’ true preferences for ranked-choice voting are without the partisan lens.
In the same exit poll, voters were asked the following question: “The vote counting system used to pick Maine’s governor requires that a candidate win the most votes. Ranked-choice voting requires that a candidate win a majority (50 percent of the votes plus one). How important is it to you that a candidate wins a majority?” The results show that regardless of party identification, Mainers support the majority-rule. Seventy-three percent of Democrats said requiring the majority-rule was “very important,” and 52 percent of both independents and Republicans agreed. When we include respondents who said that requiring a majority-rule was “somewhat important,” the level of support for the rule amongst Democrats, independents and Republicans rises to 93 percent, 81 percent and 72 percent, respectively. These results reveal that a clear majority of Maine’s voters, regardless of party, support fundamentally what ranked-choice voting does — implements a majority requirement system.
As Maine’s Legislature gears up for what will inevitably be a partisan fight over a constitutional amendment on ranked-choice voting, it is important to keep an eye on what’s important: What do Maine’s voters want. I find that Mainers overwhelmingly support the majority requirement, which fundamentally is what a constitutional amendment would establish.
Carrie LeVan is the Montgoris Family Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College in Waterville. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the college. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.