Ranked-choice voting is the flavor of the day. And it will turn out to have a bitter taste.

Its advocates want to replace real democracy, in which a majority picks the winner, with something akin to a game show method of selection. The result could be more like “Family Feud” than a decision about one of the most important choices people can make.

The problem, its advocates say, is that our political system is based on a choice between two candidates, but we frequently have several more in the race.


There are three possible solutions. One is to let the candidate with the most votes, even if not a majority, be the winner. It is done that way in federal elections and the great majority of states.

Or you could hold a runoff election between the top two vote-getters in the initial election. That’s done in 11 states.


Then there’s ranked-choice voting, in which people rank their choices the first and only time they vote. If there is no majority winner, votes in lower tiers are redistributed until there is a winner.

Maine has used the first method effectively. There were at least three serious candidates in nine of the past 10 elections for governor. And nobody complained until Republican Paul LePage was elected twice without a majority. It’s easy to understand that ranked-choice voting advocates believe he would have lost under their system.

Lewiston has just used the runoff system in the election for mayor. In effect, the first race served as a primary for the second, and the turnout in each was about the same. Voters got the chance to consider the real alternatives each time with an indisputable majority decision at the end.

Ranked-choice voting is used only in a relative handful of municipalities. In Portland, in 2011, ballots were counted 15 times. In Minneapolis, the 2012 mayor’s race resulted in 33 recounts.

Perhaps the biggest problem was that the result was not transparent. Voters could not easily understand the process or know how votes were counted. In a traditional election, it’s easy to know who got the most votes.

And the ranked-choice voting system can lead to the election of a person who received fewer first-place votes than another candidate. That may not seem fair to many voters, creating just the kind of discontent our already stressed system doesn’t need.


The ranked voting system can be gamed, literally. Just don’t select anybody but your favorite candidate. That’s called “bullet voting,” and it could help a candidate who is the second choice of other voters.

None of this amounts to majority rule, despite its advocates’ claims. A majority, by its very definition, means more than half. Ranked-choice voting cannot ensure that.

Does it eliminate “spoilers”? A spoiler costs another candidate so many votes that he or she loses an election. But how do you know a spoiler before an election?

Does ranked-choice voting favor issues over candidates? There’s no indication that was true in Portland or Minneapolis.


Ranked-choice voting encourages “respectful campaigns,” according to its advocates. Promises, promises.


Ranked-choice proponents dislike primaries, because fringe candidates can win, producing an unhappy choice in the general election. That sounds like the position of philosopher-kings who really don’t trust democracy and certainly want to see the end of political parties.

If there’s something wrong with primaries, find a way to get more people to vote. But don’t manipulate their voting.

Perhaps better arguments would be that it is loss costly and easy. But why should real democracy be easy or cheap? It’s worth doing right.

Maine now uses a system that has produced acceptable results, both easily and cheaply.

If we want decisions guaranteed to be made by a majority, then a runoff is a better idea, because it allows voters to make a clear choice rather than the muddled, computer-run outcome of ranked-choice voting.

Gordon L. Weil of Harpswell is a former Maine state agency head and municipal selectman who also served on the staff of the U.S. Senate.

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