A better way than ranked choice

The energy of ranked-choice voting supporters, flocking to the polls on Tuesday, is admirable. They’re attempting a people’s veto of the Legislature’s move to delay the ranked-choice system enacted by referendum in 2016.

This cause is more powerful than forces behind two other enacted referenda, on the minimum wage and funding schools through income taxes, which were folded, spindled and mutilated by the Legislature without significant protest. The ranked-choice voting problem, by contrast, was an adverse court decision derailing it for state general elections unless the state constitution is amended first.

This should give even the most ardent supporters pause. Chances of amending the constitution on this contested issue are practically nil, and without its use in November, the purpose of an entirely new voting system, not used by any other state, will remain unfulfilled.

The ranked-choice movement stems from Paul LePage’s election in 2010 — the most unpopular, divisive, disrespectful and even lawless governor Maine has ever known.

Preventing “another LePage” from election by a minority has driven this issue from the start. Its relevance to legislative or even congressional races, where there are rarely two well-qualified candidates, let alone three or more, is minimal.


In this respect, ranked-choice voting bears an eerie resemblance to legislative terms limits, a largely progressive reform from 1993, aiming to remove House Speaker John Martin from power. Term limits backfired spectacularly; Martin’s still in office, and legislative leadership is so crippled by automatic retirements there’s been no effective opposition to LePage.

Ranked-choice voting backers, nonetheless, keep pushing. But what if there is a better way?

I found such a method while doing research for a new book about Maine politics. It’s employed in just two states — Vermont and New York. We’ll concentrate on Vermont, since it’s the nearest thing, politically, to a peer state.

The system is simple, yet powerful. It allows multiple parties to nominate the same candidate, and, originally, the same person could appear on two or more ballot lines. It solves the “splitting the vote” problem so familiar from recent campaigns.

It doesn’t have a name; let’s call it “fusion voting.” It can achieve the goals of ranked choice without amending the constitution, and without exploding the party system — the presumably unintended effect of ranked choice.

Ranked-choice voting supporters want more choices, but Maine’s real problem is having better choices. I’ve lived here since 1984, and there’s been no election for governor where I’ve enthusiastically cast my ballot, even when “my” candidate won.


It’s been a long time since we’ve had Democrats with broad and deep appeal, such as Ed Muskie, Ken Curtis and George Mitchell, and, for Republicans, Bill Cohen and Olympia Snowe. These candidates were produced by strong Republican and Democratic parties, not the hollow shells remaining in Augusta and Washington.

Fusion voting would allow rebuilding Maine’s political parties in a way ranked choice never will. The Green Party lapsed into irrelevance after its 1990s splash; the new Libertarian Party hasn’t produced any candidates yet.

If candidates could seek the nomination of more than one party, however, we’d have a new way of “doing politics.” Imagine: A Democrat also running as a Green would have a distinctive identity now suppressed by the perceived need to avoid vote-splitting. A Republican with Libertarian credentials would stand out from “regular” Republicans.

The system would reward candidates, not punish them, for having distinctive views and new ideas. It would take time to “grow” new political parties, but it would make all parties more disciplined, and more attuned to representing their constituents, not simply holding onto power.

It works in Vermont. Progressives, especially, should note that the first Democratic governor there in a century, Phil Hoff, won key votes on two additional lines. Had he received only Democratic votes, he would have lost to the incumbent Republican.

Bernie Sanders, in becoming a U.S. senator in 2006, first won the Democratic primary before deciding, for reasons of his own, to run as an independent in November.


As Maine’s party system has crumbled, Vermont’s has grown stronger. A big reason is fusion voting, which encourages fruitful competition among political parties.

Hence the rise of Vermont’s Progressive Party, a durable third party now unique among state legislatures. Progressives sometimes run as Democrats, sometimes the “D” goes first, but they caucus and set an agenda; Maine’s independent legislators have nowhere to go.

Fusion voting wouldn’t solve all political ills, but it would prevent the problems ranked-choice attempts to solve without encountering its formidable obstacles, people’s veto or no.

All it will take are majority votes in House and Senate, and the signature of a new governor. I look forward to the debate in 2019.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 32 years. His biography, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at: drooks@tds.net

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