Adopt instant runoff vote
By Jim Brunelle
Published October 5th 2006 in Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Forecasting election results can be risky. I pretty much gave it up 40 years ago after embarrassing myself by predicting -- openly, on television -- that incumbent John H. Reed would handily defeat Kenneth M. Curtis in the 1966 race for governor.
Nevertheless, I will venture a small prediction this year. With five candidates running for governor -- four more-or-less seriously -- it's a pretty safe bet that the victor, whoever it is, will be determined by fewer than half the total number of ballots cast Nov. 7.
In Maine, as in most states, pluralities determine the winners in multi-candidate races. Theoretically -- although certainly not practically -- the next governor could be elected with barely 21 percent of the vote.
Incidentally, Curtis was the last governor to win two terms by clear majorities. After him has come a series of third-party contenders to dilute the results of most races and reduce the old democratic principle of majority rule to plurality rule.
Independent James B. Longley, Democrat Joseph E. Brennan, Republican John R. McKernan were all minority governors. Independent Angus King was first elected in 1994 with just over 35 percent. His successor, John E. Baldacci, won four years ago with 47 percent.
It looks as though this election will be no different. An electoral trend has become a political tradition and it's not a particularly healthy one.
All of which brings us to another of this column's regular pitches for the adoption of a curative reform that would restore some legitimacy to the election process and end more than three decades of chief executives that most voters have opposed at the ballot box.
The method is called "instant runoff" and the system is simplicity itself: Whenever voters are faced with multi-candidate ballots, broaden their choices. Instead of making them vote for just one candidate, allow them to rank their selections in order of preference.
If any one candidate gets a majority when the votes are tabulated at the end of Election Day, he or she is declared the winner. But if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and the second-choice votes designated by that candidate's supporters are distributed accordingly to the remaining candidates.
This process continues until one candidate accumulates a clear majority.
The beauty of this arrangement is twofold: It guarantees the democratic legitimacy of elections and it settles the outcome immediately, avoiding the two-round runoff common in some southern states in which top surviving candidates are forced to compete in a second election scheduled a month or so later.
The problems involved with the two-round runoff are substantial and worth avoiding. First, there's the cost of holding a second election, both for the public and the candidates. There is the inconvenience to voters, who shouldn't have to put up with the bother of another round of electioneering and having to revisit the ballot box long after Election Day has passed.
Furthermore, such runoffs often result in dramatically reduced levels of voter turnout, making the final results even less legitimate.
One of the big advantages of the instant runoff is that it effectively removes the "spoiler" factor from elections. That's when an independent or third-party candidate with little chance of winning enters the race and draws votes away from one of the major candidates, skewing the race toward a candidate of lesser popularity.
The spoiler can divide the voters of, say, a normally liberal-leaning district and give the election to a conservative candidate, or the other way around. The instant runoff would tend to overcome such artificial divisions.
Conversely, the instant runoff can help third-party candidates by freeing voters enrolled in major parties to stray from the fold, knowing that they can always give their second vote to their home party's candidate.
It also can work to discourage the worst aspects of negative campaigning, since candidates will be seeking second-choice ranking from their opponents' supporters.
Bills to establish instant runoffs in Maine have been introduced at recent legislative sessions but the idea has never gone anywhere. Despite the state's motto, "Dirigo," and a record of political innovation, from legislative term limits to public campaign financing, lawmakers here seem reluctant to show leadership in this particularly enlightened reform.
That's too bad.
This is an idea whose time has definitely ripened. Maine is in a good position to show the way to the rest of the nation and vastly improve our own homegrown elections in the process.
Well, maybe next year.
Jim Brunelle is a weekly columnist and has been commenting on Maine issues for more than 40 years. He lives in Cape Elizabeth.