My all-time favorite election reform proposal the instant
runoff is back before the Maine Legislature once again.
It's expected to do somewhat better than it did two years ago or,
for that matter, two years before that when it was first introduced.
But don't hold your breath waiting for it to become law anytime
soon, even though it assuredly deserves to be passed.
The instant runoff election represents one of the better advances
in the democratic process since the invention of, well, the regular
runoff. (Maine doesn't have that system either.)
Its adoption in Maine would go a long way toward making
everybody's vote count, for one thing, freeing people to vote for
third-party candidates while eliminating the so-called ³spoiler²
factor that such voting sometimes engenders.
More important, it would ensure that the ultimate victor in any
state or federal election here would be the choice of a true
majority of the voters.
It wasn't a problem when we had a strong two-party system in
Maine, or even when one party dominated the political landscape.
Elections back then were rarely inconclusive.
But with the decline of two-party politics and the emergence of
viable independent and third-party candidates, more contenders for
high public office are installed by a minority sometimes quite a
small minority of the votes cast.
Our current governor, for example, was elected with 47 percent of
the vote two years ago. Before him, Angus King was first elected in
1994 with just over 35 percent. In fact, every governor for the past
three decades carried at least one election with less than a
majority vote, beginning with independent James B. Longley in 1974
(39 percent), Joseph E. Brennan in 1978 (48 percent) and John R.
McKernan Jr. in 1986 (40 percent).
That means Maine almost routinely awards the state's top elective
post to a candidate opposed at the polls by most of the voters.
We're not alone in this. The plurality election system is used in
most states. It has the virtue of being neat, simple and decisive
the person who tallies the most votes wins, no matter how large the
field of candidates but it's also pretty undemocratic.
Some states have solved this problem by staging traditional
runoffs. When no candidate wins a clear majority in a scheduled
election, a second election is held, usually paring the top two vote
The instant runoff system is simpler, swifter and cleaner than
the traditional runoff. Here's how it works:
Whenever there are three or more contenders for a given office,
voters are given an opportunity to rank their choices in order of
preference. In each case, the No. 1 choice is awarded the person's
vote, just as in any election.
Once all the votes are cast and counted, if any one candidate
receives a clear majority, that ends the contest.
However, if none of the candidates wins more than 50 percent of
the vote, a second tabulation is immediately triggered.
The candidate with the least votes is dropped from the new count,
and the second choices of the people who voted for that candidate
are distributed as designated among the survivors, until one
candidate has the clear majority.
The instant runoff solves the ³spoiler² problem, in which a
third-party candidate draws enough votes away from an expected
winner to throw the election to one with only minority support.
Think of Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election.
The chief objection seems to be that it would be expensive to
recalibrate voting machines and would add extra counting chores for
overburdened election officials where paper ballots are still
counted by hand.
Also, there is the traditional reluctance of politicians to
embrace untested solutions to political problems, in spite of
Maine's ³Dirigo² (I lead) motto.
Backers of this excellent idea, including its chief sponsor, Sen.
Ethan Strimling, D-Portland, are realistic about its chances of
outright passage at the current session. However, support for the
idea is definitely growing and Strimling hopes his colleagues will
at least authorize a pilot program for Portland and other
communities technologically capable of carrying off the experiment
with the least amount of trouble and expense.
This is truly an idea whose time has almost come. Why shouldn't
Maine, which pioneered the clean elections system, lead the way for
the rest of the nation with this election reform as well?