The five questions on November’s referendum ballot appear to be a progressive’s dream. Raising the minimum wage, increasing state school funding by taxing the rich, requiring background checks for firearms purchases, and legalizing marijuana for adults are all causes the left can embrace with enthusiasm, and all four questions appear to enjoy strong support.

For they are also proposals independents and many Republicans support, seeking relief from the rightward lurch of “mainstream” politics over the past generation. The initiated questions are also a strong rebuke to Maine’s elected Democrats in the Legislature, who have done next to nothing to advance any of these causes, and backtracked on taxes and gun issues.

Then there is ranked-choice voting. It too was put on the ballot by a progressive coalition, but it will, unfortunately, not likely have the desired effect. The law of unintended consequences applies, in spades, to complicated rejiggering of the way people vote — and it might well exacerbate the problem in the governor’s race that ranked-choice voting is supposed to solve.

Like legislative term limits in 1993, it’s a seemingly clever way to fix what’s wrong, without going through the hard work necessary to actually fix it. Back then, the problem was what to do about the overweening power of House Speaker John Martin, who had clung to the office far longer than anyone before or since.

Measured by that goal, terms limits has been a spectacular failure. Martin is still in the Legislature, albeit not in top leadership, but the automatic retirement of citizen legislators every eight years has sapped both House and Senate of expertise, continuity, and the ability to build strong relationships across party lines.

There hasn’t been a single legislative leader with notable accomplishments since Martin left office — removed, not by term limits, but due to a loss of confidence within his own Democratic caucus after a ballot-tampering scandal.


There’s no real doubt why ranked-choice voting is on the ballot. In every election for governor where a non-party candidate was a significant factor, a former Democrat, running as an independent, divided the vote with the party nominee. It happened in 1974, when Jim Longley drew votes from George Mitchell, and again in 1994, when Angus King sapped Joe Brennan’s strength.

Even in 2006, when Democrat John Baldacci won re-election, he got only 38 percent, thanks to Barbara Merrill’s candidacy. And most notoriously, in both 2010 and 2014, lifelong Democrat Eliot Cutler ran as an independent, feuding with the Democratic nominees and substantially contributing to the election, and re-election, of Paul LePage.

It’s tempting to say the progressive side will never get its act together, and that ranked-choice voting will limit the damage. But it doesn’t truly account for how people make voting decisions.

Whatever side you’re on, America, and Maine, remain a two-party system. The overwhelming majority of those we elect to the Legislature and Congress, the Blaine House and the White House, are enrolled Democrats and Republicans. And with our divided systems of government, it’s hard to see how anything else could work.

The most likely effect of ranked-choice voting on the governor’s race, particularly with the Clean Election option renewed, is a proliferation of candidates, further blurring what ought to be clear lines between the major party nominees. It would be far better to go back to basics, create real party platforms — not the collections of bromides and half-truths they’ve become — and then have competitive primaries to choose the best candidates, something that’s now rare.

Will this be easy? Not at all. But it is necessary to rebuild the cohesion of both Maine Republicans and Democrats, badly fractured by the decline of party organization and the rise of, as one keen observer put it, “ego party” candidates.


Ranked-choice voting is, finally, an evasion of that responsibility. Nor does it necessarily fulfill its proponents’ central claim, that it provides an “automatic majority.”

When Michael Brennan became Portland’s first elected mayor in 2011 — the only Maine election to date where ranked-choice played a significant role — there were 15 candidates, and, despite 14 rounds of “instant runoff,” Brennan was still named on only 46 percent of ballots, because many voters didn’t mark a full list. If ranked-choice doesn’t reliably produce the majority it promises, what, really, is its purpose?

No other state uses ranked-choice voting, and only 11 U.S. cities do; some have repealed the system. On paper, ranked-choice is appealing, just as legislative term limits were a generation ago.

But Question 5 deserves a much closer look before we vote on it in November. It would be an open-ended experiment whose outcome can’t possibly be foreseen.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 31 years. His new book, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at:

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