Writings and observations

Drawing a lesson from Maine

harris ROBERT
HARRIS

 
Oregon
Outpost

In the Governors election in Maine this year, voters had three candidates to chose from:

Current Governor Paul LePage of whom USA today wrote:

“Brutal” is also how critics describe LePage’s record since 2010, when he became governor with 39% of the vote in a three-way race. LePage cut welfare rolls, vetoed Medicaid expansion, passed an income tax cut and then reduced municipal revenue sharing to pay for it — all the while calling legislators “idiots,” state workers “corrupt,” and telling the NAACP to “kiss my butt.” “He’s piggish and bullheaded and not really listening to what the people are saying,” says Rebecca Kowaloff, 30, a doctor and Democratic voter in Portland.

Democratic candidate Mike Michaud described in that same article:

A third-generation paper mill worker who never attended college and stayed on the job until he went to Washington in 2002, he can compete with LePage for blue-collar and Franco-American loyalty. He criticizes LePage for kicking people off welfare — he wants to provide some benefits for people in low-wage jobs — and for “the negativity he keeps spewing.” Michaud has won six terms by hefty margins in the northern, more conservative half of Maine and before that served as president of the state Senate.

And Independent Candidate Eliot Cutler.

Cutler lost the Governors race to LePage back in 2010 by less than 2%. Cutler is an environmental lawyer and active in independent rights movement. In his 2010 campaign for Governor he was endorsed by virtually all the major newspapers.

Despite Cutlers nearly winning in 2010 in a one on one contest against LePage,this year in a three way race he received a meager 8% of the vote in 2014. Could his support have dropped that much? No. The reason is that our current system of voting – you select one candidate – means that in a three way race if you believe your favorite candidate can’t win, then you cast your vote against your least favorite.

It’s a sad form of Democracy that doesn’t let voters vote for their first choice.

But, luckily The Center for Election Science was on the scene in Maine on election day. They polled over 600 voters as they left the voting places and had them vote on the Governors race using approval voting and Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) with ranked choice. They also have them vote in head to head races between the three candidates.

The results should simply shock us and make people really think about whether the current voting method serves the people, or the Democratic and Republican parties.

Approval voting is a method of voting where a voter can vote for – or approve- of as many candidates as they wish. So many Maine voters who voted for both the Democrat and Republican also approved of Cutler as Governor. In fact, Cutler had the most voters approve of him.

IRV, or instant runoff, allows voters to rank their choices 1, 2 or 3. There is math done. The results in the graph show the result after the math is applied in a first round. Under this voting system Michaud would have been eliminated in the first round, and Cutler and LePage would have moved into a final head to head round. As you can see on the right side of the graph, Cutler would have slaughtered LePAge 60% – 40% in a top two runoff.

The circles are head to head races between the three candidates. The best candidate would be the one that could beat every other candidate head to head. That would be Cutler who holds a 20% margin over either the Democrat or Republican in head to head.

This should be shocking to voters. Simply shocking.

Cutler has the deepest and widest support among voters. It is clear that LePage’s victory made over 50% of the voters unhappy. A Michaud victory would have had the same effect. But a Cutler victory would have satisfied 55-60% of the voters.

Our system is structurally set up to not select the best most satisfying winner. Many of us cannot vote for our favorite candidate, we have to vote against our least favorite. At least as long as the psychology that only a Democrat or Republican can win a three way election.

And if that psychology can’t be changed, we need to change the way we vote from plurality to approval – or arguably to IRV.

A ballot measure switching our voting to approval voting should be the highest priority for election reformers. In fact, it should be the top priority for those who seek campaign finance reform. Because if voters are allowed to approve of third party candidates without the fear of throwing the election to their least favorite candidate, you may even see some third party or independent candidates win some state elections.

And approval voting doesn’t require an amendment to the US Constitution. It just takes some signatures on a ballot and educating the voters on the merits of moving our voting into the 21st century.

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