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Portland Press Herald

Instant runoff offers another chance for Maine to lead

By Jim Brunelle

February 7, 2005

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 getters.

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?

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