Finally, the elections are behind us, and the dust and the din are subsiding. With any luck, we’ve got a good month or two before candidates start lining up for the 2018 race for governor. With no incumbent in that election, now is the time to fix one of the most glaring problems with our gubernatorial elections: crowded fields of candidates in November.

The electoral system we have in place today worked well in those bygone days when just two candidates usually ran for governor, rather than the three to five that have become the new normal. It’s quickly become a rusting relic that needs rebuilding.

Trying to accommodate multiple candidates in a system designed for two is a little like trying to put 18 eggs into a carton for a dozen. A lot of things end up breaking. Few, if any, candidates end up with majority support. Campaigns spend too much time engaging in various forms of deception to prop up one opponent in order to damage another. Voters have to take billiard lessons to learn elaborate bank shots of strategic voting.

It’s all a mess and an embarrassment, but one that can be fixed easily with a little attention from open-minded elected officials and the public.

There are two ways to fix this problem. Ranked choice voting is an instant runoff process where you mark your ballot with your first, second and third choices. If no candidate wins a majority, then the last candidate gets dropped off and their votes are redistributed to their other choices. That process continues until a winner is declared.

Ranked choice voting is already gaining momentum with people gathering signatures to put it on the ballot, either in 2015 or 2016.


It seems to be working well where it’s been introduced, including in the mayoral election in Portland, but it has some hurdles. One is that it’s hard to explain. Another is that lots of people, in this era of distrust of government, aren’t all that keen on having a computer between them and the election results. It also raises some tricky questions with the Maine Constitution.

Another option is to add a runoff election in September that would whittle a crowded field down to two candidates, who would then face each other in November. The runoff would be open to all qualified candidates, including party nominees. The biggest problem with runoff elections is that it makes us trudge to the polls an extra time, which costs time and money. But they’re a tried and true way to narrow crowded fields of candidates, don’t require any new equipment and are easy to explain to voters.

Both ranked choice voting and a September runoff solve most of the problems associated with multi-candidate elections and eliminate all the hand-wringing about spoilers. Here are some of their benefits:

• Encouraging a wide array of candidates without invoking fears about who’s a spoiler and who isn’t.

• Allowing new ideas and leaders to rise without being pre-screened by an ever-narrowing gauntlet of party primaries, where as little as 5 percent of overall voters now decide who will be on the November ballot.

• Ending the need for “strategic” voting to block candidates that a majority of voters oppose.


• Removing the prospect that fringe candidates can get their hands on the machinery of government to promote their agenda, to either radically shrink or expand government, or to punish their opponents.

• Reducing negative campaigning because every candidate who hopes to win in November is going to need the votes of other candidates’ supporters.

Being an incurable optimist, I hope that the Legislature will enact one of these ideas this year, in plenty of time for the next election cycle. But my realistic side says we shouldn’t have high hopes. Even the most common-sense ideas often get bogged down in Augusta by tactical calculations about whether any change will help or hurt a particular party or candidate in the next election.

If real change is going to happen in how we manage crowded fields of candidates, it’s almost surely going to need to start with voters taking matters into their own hands. What Maine needs is an uprising of common sense about these issues, and a citizens’ referendum. That’s no small task, but it can be done if people of good will commit themselves to it. For Maine’s sake, it needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan consulting group, which is active in growing Maine’s next economy. Email at

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