The ranked-choice voting system adopted by Maine — and increasingly under consideration elsewhere — would be expanded to every state under a proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives.

It’s got “Mainementum,” said Rob Richie, president and chief executive officer of the Maryland-based nonprofit FairVote, which has long advocated the voting reform endorsed by voters in a 2016 referendum in the Pine Tree State.

Richie said ranked-choice voting has been “on a really fascinating roll” the past few years, garnering ever more attention and use across the nation, spurred in part by its success in Maine.

But there are some who argue that there’s an even better election reform that ought to be tried instead: approval voting.

Steven Brams, a game theorist and political scientist at New York University, called it “as near perfect as you can get” for delivering the best results at the polls.

So far, the system he advocates hasn’t been tried in state or municipal races in the United States – Fargo, North Dakota, plans to give it a try next year — but it’s been used by cardinals in the past to pick the next pope and by the United Nations to select the secretary general.

While Brams, some mathematicians and the Center for Election Science try to round up support for approval voting, the ranked-choice system chosen by Mainers is spreading.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree

U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, recently introduced a measure that would require states to adopt ranked-choice voting in primary and general elections for Congress starting in 2022.

The plan, which has the backing of 11 other House Democrats, including Maine’s 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, would also provide federal funding to help states implement the new system and educate voters.

“I’m proud that Maine’s successful experience with ranked-choice voting has inspired other states and the Congress to explore it,” Pingree said. “Last year, when Mainers had more choices on the ballot, but no longer had to worry about splitting the vote, we had record voter turnout.”

She said she backed Raskin’s bill because the ranked-choice system “has strengthened our state elections and I believe it would have the same effect on a national scale.”

The change, used in Maine since primaries in June 2018, is already spreading.

At least three states — Kansas, Hawaii and Alaska — plan to use ranked-choice voting for their presidential primary or caucus. New York City voters will decide next month whether to use the voting system in future city elections.

 

IS RANKED-CHOICE THE RIGHT CHOICE? 

Some question whether reform-minded officials are rushing to adopt the wrong system to overhaul the nation’s elections.

A mathematician in Michigan, John Howard Wilhelm, has been pressing leaders across the world to look instead at approval voting because, he said, it is both simpler and better.

Ranked-choice voting, he said, “is a very, very bad system, for technical reasons, not for political reasons.”

Maine is making a mistake, Wilhelm said. He said ranked-choice voting has largely unrecognized flaws.

Brams said that because of the way ranked-choice voting eliminates candidates who have fewer votes in each round, it can, in some case, have the effect of defeating a contender who could beat each of his opponents one-on-one.

New York University politics professor Steven Brams. Photo provided

That happened in a Burlington, Vermont, mayoral race in 2009, he said. In that race, the Democrat placed third in a three-way race and was eliminated, leaving the Progressive and Republican candidates in the final round, won by the Progressive even though the Democrat would have beat either opponent head-to-head.

Burlington voters didn’t like the outcome so they dumped ranked-choice voting the following year rather than risk having something similar occur again.

Brams said the momentum behind ranked-choice voting will likely collapse when something similar takes place in Maine.

It might not take long to see “a disastrous result,” he added, given that as many as two in five races wind up with an odd outcome created by “complications when you transfer votes” during the ballot count.

Richie said the scenarios critics worry about happen only rarely and aren’t the disaster they claim.

He said that no voting system is perfect, but ranked-choice is the best overall.

The one thing that everyone who has eyed election reforms agrees on, Richie said, is that the plurality voting method typically used in most American elections is “surely the worst.”

 

RANKED-CHOICE TAKES HOLD IN MAINE 

Maine dropped its long-held system of awarding victory to whoever gets the most votes after a 2016 referendum favored instead the adoption of ranked-choice voting, sometimes called instant runoff voting.

The new system was used for the first time in the 2018 primaries and for U.S. House and U.S. Senate races in the general election last fall. It will be used in next year’s presidential race as well, the first time any state has picked its presidential winner by ranking candidates.

In one of last year’s contests – the 2nd Congressional District race – the voting change led to a different outcome than the old system may have provided, allowing Democrat Jared Golden to win a squeaker against Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin.

It’s not clear who would have won without ranked-choice voting because it’s possible some voters may have cast their ballots differently had election rules remained unchanged.

Raskin said that switching to a ranked-choice voting system across the land would mean that those elected to Congress in every state “are the ones who have most successfully assembled a majority of voters.” 

Mechanically, the ranked-choice system is, contrary to the talk from some politicians, a pretty simple one to master.

“The basic idea is appealing,” Brams said.

Voters simply rank the candidates for each race in the order they prefer, from first to last.

When the ballots are counted, a contender who gets more than 50% of the tally automatically wins.

But if none of the candidates secure a majority, the candidate who has the fewest votes gets dropped in the second round of tallying and those ballots that had picked the last-place finisher as their first choice are redistributed to whoever is listed as the second place choice.

The process continues until somebody gets more than half the votes.

Though Maine remains the only state to have adopted ranked-choice voting for Congress and the presidency, a number of localities use the system. Some other countries do, too.

 

HOW APPROVAL VOTING OPERATES 

In approval voting, each voter casts what amounts to a yes or no vote on each of the candidates. Brams said they basically render a judgment on each of them.

The candidate who collects the most votes wins.

Its chief advantage over ranked-choice voting, Brams said, is that there is no way any vote cast can wind up hurting the candidate someone most wants.

For Wilhelm, approval voting is a costless reform that “would eliminate the wasted vote, the spoiler role, the necessity of vote-splitting” and prove fairer to third party and independent candidates.

Richie said Wilhelm and others who focus entirely on the math are “not on solid ground.”

He said they may have a theoretical case, but it is divorced from the way voters in real life cast their ballots.

Rob Richie, president of FairVote. Photo provided

Richie said in an approval system, informed voters have an incentive to bullet vote – that is, to cast only a single vote for the candidate they want most in order to deprive others of additional support.

In ranked-choice elections, they don’t do that, he said. For instance, he said, in last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in Maine, which offered multiple candidates, nine in 10 voters ranked their choices.

In approval elections, Richie said, fewer than one in five actually vote for more than a single candidate. That makes it only a little better than the plurality system in use in most places in the country since outcomes are about the same.

The bottom line, Richie said, is that with ranked-choice people can vote for everyone in the order they wish without having to think tactically. In approval voting systems, he said, they have an incentive to avoid helping anyone but their first choice.

His critics say that ranked-choice races are the ones that truly bring out political scheming.

Brams said that for many years he’s been debating the point with Richie, who hasn’t budged from his position.

“He’s ineducable,” Brams said.

He said FairVote, created in 1992, has done so well promoting ranked-choice voting because Richie has proven “an effective organizer” who’s been able to raise money to push his preferred option.

 

OTHER ISSUES WITH RANKED-CHOICE VOTING 

Lawrence Kestenbaum, Washtenaw County Clerk in Michigan, told politicians in a recent email that in places with many offices on the ballot, it can become too complicated and unwieldy.

In addition, Kestenbaum said, ranked-choice races take a long time to count so results aren’t known quickly.

Brams said that with approval voting, there’s no need to haul ballots to a central location and count them over the course of days. Instead, they can all be counted where they are cast, he said, and results known quickly.

Kestenbaum said approval voting would bring all of the benefits claimed for ranked-choice voting without the need for “complicated calculations” and extra costs.

“Unfortunately, approval voting doesn’t have the trendy cachet that ranked-choice has acquired,” Kestenbaum said. “Ranked-choice gets people excited, whereas approval voting seems boring by comparison.”

 

RANKED-CHOICE IS CATCHING ON 

Richie said that FairVote hopes that by 2030, ranked-choice voting will be the norm in America.

More and more states are eyeing it. More and more municipalities are using it.

Approval voting, on the other hand, only has Fargo. And there’s a push to try it in St. Louis as well.

Richie said if the Republicans have a wide-open primary in 2024, there will be “an interesting opportunity” for them to see the advantage ranked-choice voting has in weeding through a field of candidates.

Raskin’s bill, Richie said, helps spur conversation about the new voting system and is likely to help push it forward.

Ranked-choice voting, he said, is “on a pretty steady trajectory” to become the future of America’s elections.

That old piece of political wisdom — as Maine goes, so goes the nation — may just prove true.

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