A lot of people are concerned about the crowded elections we have these days, especially for governor. They’re worried about how the vote will be split, and whether that will produce a divisive governor who cares only about a narrow base of supporters.

It turns out there are some very specific things that both candidates and voters can do to fix that problem this year. Candidates who can’t win, by the fall, should drop out. And voters can insist that whatever candidate they support pledges to do exactly that.

What won’t work is trying to go back to the old system, when only two major-party candidates appeared on the ballot. We haven’t had an election like that, in an open-seat race for governor, since 1970, and we may never have one again. If we did, we’d only be depriving the state of new ideas and new leadership that may be essential to our future as a state.

Forty-two percent of Mainers are not enrolled in either party today, and that number is growing. They’re choosing independence over party registration because they’ve lost faith in what the parties are preaching. They believe that both parties have been captured by special interests, and they don’t believe either party can get much done.

Those independent voters deserve a voice in the fall election, as much as any Democrat or Republican does. After all, since 1974, Maine has elected as many independent governors as either party has. So the solution to the crowded ballot problem isn’t to drive people out of political races – it’s to change the way we manage our elections.

Here are three things that we can all work on now, and over the next few years:

Fix the structure of elections.

Our election system was set up at a time when there were only two candidates in the race, and it’s long overdue for an overhaul. Voters tried to do that in 2016 by supporting ranked-choice voting. Unfortunately, as we now know, ranked-choice voting can’t apply to the November general elections because of constitutional problems.

The Legislature could have easily fixed that problem by putting a constitutional amendment before the voters. They could also open up the June primaries to all candidates and all voters, with just the top two candidates moving into the November election. But they’ve done nothing except protect their parties and the old system that tilts in their favor. That has to change.

Voters can implement their own form of ranked-choice voting.

Maine voters have been quietly working on this “spoiler” problem since 1974 when they elected Jim Longley as an independent governor. They’ve done it without instructions from on high and with a simple dose of Maine common sense. In nearly every election since then, when their first choice faltered in the fall, they moved as quickly as they could to their second choice.

This informal, voter-driven ranked-choice system isn’t perfect, but for now it’s all voters have. For it to work, though, voters have to think and act differently. They have to assess not only their first choice for the office, but also their second, in case their preferred candidate fades. And they have to keep their powder dry by not locking into a candidate or voting too early.

Candidates have a critical role to play.

Candidates have to be part of this informal ranked-choice voting system as well. If a candidate clearly cannot win the election by mid-October, they need to put the interests of Maine ahead of themselves and pull out. No wishy-washy stuff. No arguments that major-party candidates have special privileges. Just do the right thing.

Here’s my pledge to Maine voters: If it is clear by mid-October that I cannot win the election, I will publicly withdraw from the race. Plain and simple. That is exactly what I publicly urged Eliot Cutler to do during the 2014 campaign and privately recommended to Libby Mitchell four years earlier.

I am challenging every candidate in this race to take a similar pledge: to put the interests of Maine ahead of personal or party interests and, if it is clear by mid-October that they cannot win, to drop out of the race.

Voters should also challenge every candidate for governor to make that same pledge, and refuse to support them if they don’t. There’s too much at stake in this election for anything less.

If someone wants to be your governor, the first test of how much they care about the people of Maine is whether they will put what you need, and what Maine needs, ahead of their own ambitions.

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