Ranked-choice ridiculousness

More than a week, and no winner. Glitches. Memory stick problems. Ballots sent by courier from remote Maine towns. And all for likely selecting the winner that would have been selected anyway under the old system? This is really how you want to do elections, Maine?

Maine’s first experiment with ranked choice voting hasn’t exactly been a shining example of the wisdom of the system.

Maine election officials begin to collect ranked-choice ballots on June 14 in Augusta. Private courier drivers fanned across the Maine on Thursday to collect ballots and return them to the state capital for additional tabulations to determine winners in two Democratic primary elections.(AP Photo/Marina Villeneuve)

When it was sold to us, we were told it was going to be an antidote to negative campaigning. We saw that it did — as I predicted — exactly the opposite. I said this more than two years ago:

“It will actually make negative campaigning worse. Undeniably, it will drive negative campaign spending to third-party groups, even more so than in recent years.

Third-party groups will almost entirely take over the role of attack dogs for their newly two-faced, sneering candidates who can call themselves ‘clean’ and ‘positive,’ while their vicious, unaccountable friends savage their political opponents for them.”

And I was absolutely right about that. On the Republican side, a Super PAC with ties to Mary Mayhew attacked Shawn Moody and Garrett Mason, and indeed was the primary vehicle by which attacks by the Mayhew side were prosecuted.

On the Democratic side, an outside, third-party group, EMILY’s List, decided to dive into the primary to run cover for Janet Mills, attacking rival Adam Cote for being formerly registered as a Republican.

Interestingly, I seem to have underestimated the willingness of the candidates themselves from going negative on their own. Mason’s campaign was relentless in attacking Moody, trying — unsuccessfully it seems — to drag down his lead to a point where he could be overtaken. Cote himself attacked Mills for her role in a water dispute with Maine tribes, and for her formerly positive NRA rating.

And then there is the curious case of the Maine Democratic Party, which attacked a clearly center-left candidate, Marty Grohman, in the 1st Congressional District race.

I say it is a curious case, because under the old system, the Democratic Party would have never bothered attacking Grohman. Pingree is likely to be able to gain a rather significant plurality, whether it is against Grohman, who is running as an independent, or Mark Holbrook, who is running as a Republican. In that case, she’d be safe and no attack would be necessary.

But in a ranked-choice system? As my fellow columnist Michael Cianchette points out, there is a very real possibility that Pingree could lose to Grohman, due entirely to ranked-choice voting. If Grohman can find a way to come in second place and Holbrook drops in the first round, nearly all of his votes would go to Grohman, and he could potentially overtake Pingree.

That makes him a threat. Thus, the Democratic Party must destroy him, and an attack that wouldn’t have happened otherwise was born.

Indeed, that race highlights one of the core fallacies, beyond the false narrative of positive campaigns, of the ranked choice system.

Ranked choice promises to provide the people of Maine with a consensus choice for a variety of offices. We are to be left with a candidate, we are told, that is broadly appealing to a majority of Maine voters.

But who is that majority truly behind?

Consider a situation in which Pingree gets 40 percent of the vote, Grohman gets 30.1 percent of the vote, and Holbrook gets 29.9 percent of the vote. In that instance, as I mentioned before, most of Holbrook’s supporters would choose Grohman as their second choice, and he would almost certainly win more than 50 percent of the vote.

But consider another situation that looks almost exactly the same. In this increasingly hypothetical election, Pingree would get the same 40 percent of the vote, but Holbrook would get 30.1 percent, and Grohman would get 29.9 percent.

In that situation, Grohman’s supporters would almost certainly choose Pingree as their second choice by overwhelming margins, and then suddenly Pingree would actually have won nearly 60 percent.

Can anyone honestly tell me that either result is a real expression of the will of the Maine voter? If the customary 300,000 or so voters show up to vote in the 1st District, 600 voters going this way or that way — with nothing else changing — could somehow convince you that either Pingree or Grohman had a “majority” behind them.

And the majority is a fallacy, anyway. With the plethora of exhausted ballots, winners in this system will rather frequently win with a plurality of the raw voters that showed up to vote on election day, as is almost certainly the case this year.

No amount of complex, confusing, overly stuffed ballot questions will ever make this system a good idea.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.