Alan Caron got into the race for governor because he cares about Maine, and has ideas about how to shake up its political culture and restart its sluggish economy. And he wanted to win.

Even though he never got out of fourth place in a four-way race, Caron may have achieved at least one of those goals. Consider the political culture shook.

Last Monday, Caron ended his independent campaign for governor and threw his support behind one of his opponents, Democrat Janet Mills, whom he described as the only candidate left in the race with the “experience, intelligence and toughness,” to do the job. It could not have been easy for him to quit the race so close to the finish line, especially when he was finally hearing from voters who were responding to his message after seeing him debate.

SETTING A PRECEDENT

But what Caron did sets a precedent for future participants in multi-candidate races that are not conducted with ranked-choice voting. If a minority of legislators continues to prevent voters from ranking their preferences for governor and legislator, it will be up to candidates like Caron to do the right thing and step aside when they know they can’t win.

And if they can endorse an opponent like Caron did, it’s even better because it helps build coalitions that have broad support, eliminating what’s known as the spoiler problem.

That’s the problem that ranked-choice voting was designed to prevent. Caron’s campaign shows why it’s necessary.

Since 1982, only one candidate for governor has received more than 50 percent of the vote, and three of the last six winners failed to attract 40 percent support. An independent or third-party candidate can win, if the conditions are right, but they are more likely to create a path to victory for a partisan candidate who has passionate but narrow appeal.

After Gov. Paul LePage won narrowly in 2010 against divided liberal opposition, the spoiler question became the first and in some cases the only question for independents like Eliot Cutler, Caron and State Treasurer Terry Hayes.

Caron came into the race with decades looking at Maine’s economic history and formulating ideas about what could make it grow now. But for most of the race, the first question he was asked was how he would navigate the spoiler question. He promised that he would look at the polls in mid October and “do the right thing” if he thought he couldn’t win, but a lot of people didn’t believe him and flooded his social media accounts with demands he get out of the race immediately.

How different would this race have been if ranked-choice voting had been in play? Instead of asking him to drop out, people might have asked him about his plan to make the state energy independent by 2030, or two free years of higher ed for students who live in Maine for 10 years. Instead of focusing on how to prevent the worst possible outcome from the election, voters could have thought about what the best outcome could look like. That doesn’t mean that candidates like Caron would win, but they would at least have a chance to make their case.

SIDE BY SIDE

Next Tuesday, Mainers will be able to compare the two voting systems. They will be able to rank preferences in the multi-candidate races for U.S. Senate and Congress but not in the three-way race for governor. Any of them who did not fill out a ranked-choice ballot in the June primary will get a chance to decide what’s more confusing: Marking a ballot that indicates a first and second choice, or trying to handicap a multi-candidate race, figuring out who’s a legitimate contender and who’s a spoiler.

In his news conference Monday, Caron said that he would work to pass a constitutional amendment to permit ranked-choice voting in state races. That remains the best way to address this problem.

But until that happens, the best Mainers can hope for is that future candidates in multi-candidate races will be as honorable as Caron, and do the right thing, even when that’s not easy.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.