With the ongoing saga over the request for a recount in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District election and the court effort to overturn the election results, the inherent problems with the ranked-choice voting system are becoming clearer by the day.

Those problems aren’t necessarily with the law’s constitutionality — that issue will be settled by the judiciary one way or another in the coming weeks. They’re also not related to how the law has been administered here in Maine. Rather, they’re flaws — whether unintended or not — that are inherent to the law itself, and will continue to affect any elections in which it is used.

Now that ranked-choice voting has not only come into effect in a statewide general election in Maine, but also actually resulted in a different outcome in later rounds, these issues have become strikingly obvious. In Maine’s congressional races this year, ranked-choice voting didn’t spur the sudden appearance of any unenrolled candidates who had a chance of victory. Instead, it encouraged voters to send first-round votes to minor candidates who had no chance of winning, since it no longer seemed as if they were “wasting” their votes.

It’s easy to see how the major parties will react to the system in the future: They’ll find a way to work it to their advantage, just like they did with term limits, Clean Elections and nearly every other electoral reform that’s ever been passed. If a major party was worried that their candidate was weak in a certain policy area or geographic region, they could encourage a third-party candidate to run who was strong there and whose supporters would likely rank their nominee second. While this might lead to more people running for office, it probably won’t lead to more independents or third-party candidates actually getting elected. Instead, they’ll just end up being pawns, whether willing or unwilling, of either the Democrats or the Republicans.

As major campaigns and both parties adjust to the ranked-choice system, they’ll learn how to cleverly manipulate it. In the past, the two major parties either ignored minor candidates or did their best to squash them like a bug.

Now they might assist them in the hope that they’ll be able to drag their candidates across the finish line by bringing out people to the polls who haven’t been inspired by their nominee. Ranked-choice voting could end up encouraging a proliferation of narrowly focused or single-issue candidates who run to draw attention to their particular cause, rather than really being in it to win it.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting may well consider that to be a good thing, as it forces the two major parties to pay attention to ideas that were previously marginalized. That might be a good theory, except that historically in this country it’s already happened, both in Maine and across the nation.

When Ross Perot ran a presidential campaign that was focused on the rising national deficit and snagged a significant percentage of the popular vote, both parties took notice. After that election, they started to work together to reduce the deficit and actually succeeded for a brief moment. Here in Maine, Democrats paid attention when Greens started having an impact, and quickly moved to the left to win back the voters they had lost.

If an audience is out there for a particular issue or cause, third-party candidates can get the attention of the major parties without the aid of ranked-choice voting. They just might have to work harder and it might take a little longer, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The problem with encouraging single-issue candidates is that for every good idea on the margin that’s being unjustly ignored, dozens – if not hundreds – of truly awful ideas are correctly being dismissed. If you think an independent candidate might help bring attention to a cause you support, imagine for a moment that same thing happening to a cause you deeply oppose. There are plenty of crackpot ideas out there – on the left and the right – that mainstream politicians should be ignoring and that ought to be consigned to the ash heap of history.

The grand theory behind ranked-choice voting may have been that it would keep a minor candidate from affecting the outcome of an election, but in fact that will keep happening — just in a different way. Given that, it’s worth wondering whether this experiment is really a beneficial reform or just a scheme to manipulate the final outcome.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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