Ranked-choice voting is awful, but true runoffs aren’t

Tuesday of this week, the state of Mississippi did it the right way.

Earlier in the month, on the day we all went to the polls, Mississipians held a special election for the seat left vacated by the resignation of US Sen. Thad Cochran. Four candidates ran for the seat, each running on a non-partisan ticket line, with two main competitors — Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy — taking up the lion’s share of votes. The other two were minor candidates with no realistic chance of winning.

Neither Hyde-Smith or Espy received 50 percent of the vote, however. No problem. Mississippi scheduled a second election between the top two finishers, to be held three weeks later.

Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith speaks to her supporters as she celebrates her runoff win over Democrat Mike Espy in Jackson, Mississippi, on Nov. 27. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

That three weeks allowed the voters of Mississippi to be informed of the two remaining candidates, so that they could honestly evaluate them against one another, and make a decision about which of the two of them they preferred.

Tuesday they held another election, and Hyde-Smith defeated Espy by 8 points.

Interestingly, more people voted in the second election than voted in the original election.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the right way to produce majority winners, if that is something that you, for some reason, fetishize.

Unlike many of you, I do not devote myself to the church of populism, nor find anything inherently noble about a majority of voters supporting an idea, or a candidate.

As I’ve said often, there were periods in American history where majorities of voters supported the practice of slavery, and denying women the right to vote. Majoritarianism doesn’t somehow make those things any more righteous.

Still, when it comes to electing people, I’m not necessarily opposed to electoral reform of some type, as a matter of principle. But if we’re going to do it, let’s do it the right way, not the way Maine just did it.

In a true runoff, as Mississippi just did, you are afforded information and opportunity. You are asked to vote for your choice of a large field of candidates. You vote once, clearly, for a candidate you register a definitive preference for. If no one achieves a majority, you are asked to vote again, between those who remain, who you are able to evaluate against one another.

In ranked-choice voting, you aren’t allowed that knowledge. You are forced to decide between abdicating your vote in phantom future rounds, which may or may not occur, or ranking an order of preference that you may or may not really even have, with no way of registering affinity or intensity of feeling.

In the 2016 Republican presidential primary, there were 17 candidates running at one time. If I was asked to rank my preference of those candidates, I would’ve gotten to the third or fourth round, and I would not have truly had much off a preference over the 13 or 14 remaining candidates. Yet I would have had to, despite this, rank them, and preferences of mine would’ve been registered without me actually even really having them.

If, on the other hand, the two remaining candidates in a traditional runoff would have ended up being two candidates in that hazy blob of candidates I couldn’t realistically differentiate between, the period of time where I would know those candidates were the two remaining choices, and the case they each made for why they were the better option would have given me a real chance to think about my choice.

No confusion. No grid to fill out. No complicated algorithm to reallocate certain people’s votes by the secretary of state. Simple. Straight forward. Fair.

The only “flaw” of a true runoff is that is can, sometimes, produce lower voter turnout in the second round. But this is usually when the second round winner is going to win that second round by a blowout, thus people don’t feel the need to turn out as much.

When races are truly contested, as Mississippi’s was, turnout is as high, or sometimes even higher. That likely would’ve been the case here in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District this year.

So if some kind of reform is truly necessary, I beg Maine to turn away from the insane madness that is ranked-choice voting, and implement a true runoff system instead.

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.