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Maine’s 2nd District outcome proves value of ranked choice voting

During the frantic scramble before the midterm elections, Americans nervously checked the odds on FiveThirtyEight, cleared in-boxes of ever-more-urgent fundraising pleas from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and steeled themselves for the arrival of the dreaded New York Times needle. 

Amidst all that anxiety it was easy to miss a disturbing trend: Independent and third-party candidates suddenly abandoning their campaigns and endorsing an opponent just days or weeks ahead of the election, sometimes even after ballots had been printed, absentee ballots returned, or early voting well under way. They didn’t want to be blamed as spoilers, or to swing close races toward the candidate they liked least.

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Candidates in close races jumped ship from coast to coast, and up and down the ballot. In Alaska, Gov. Bill Walker dropped out and got behind a Democrat, as did Oregon independent gubernatorial candidate Patrick Starnes. The Libertarian seeking the U.S. Senate seat from Montana bowed out and endorsed the Republican, while the Green Party nominee in Arizona scuttled her campaign — much to her party’s dismay — and urged a vote for the Democrat.

Voters and candidates in one state, however, didn’t have to engage in any of these last-second gyrations. Maine made history this month as the first state to use ranked choice voting (RCV) to elect its U.S. senator, members of Congress, and other state and local officials. That led to a fascinating result in a four-way race for the state’s 2nd Congressional District.

In Maine’s 2nd, incumbent Bruce Poliquin finished the first round with a narrow lead — but far short of the 50 percent necessary to win. Poliquin earned 46.2 percent, compared to 45.5 percent for his Democratic challenger, Jared Golden. The two independents split the remaining — and decisive — 8 percent. 

Enter RCV. Ranked choice simulates an instant runoff, without the associated expense and decline in turnout that comes with bringing everyone back out to the polls. Voters simply indicate their first. second and third choices on Election Day. If no one finishes the first round with more than 50 percent, then the candidate with the fewest votes gets eliminated and the second choice votes come into play. It’s easy, commonplace around the world, and growing in popularity here at home.

When the second-place votes were tallied in Maine’s second, they broke toward Golden. He defeated Poliquin by a single percentage point and nearly 3,000 votes. Poliquin's attorneys want a federal judge to order a new election.

But the real winner was democracy itself. Everyone got to back the candidate of his or her choosing, and Maine’s 2nd will be represented by the candidate with the widest support. The outcome might seem unusual, but it’s actually a terrific example of how ranked choice voting makes elections better.

After all, Maine voters adopted RCV because they appreciated the extra choices provided by the state’s long tradition of independent candidates — but also wanted to ensure that the candidate with genuine majority support won. Seven of the state’s past 11 governors, dating to the 1970s, took office with less than 40 percent of the vote, meaning more than 60 percent preferred someone else to lead the state.

Voters in this swing-seat nail-biter, however, didn’t have to worry about a plurality winner. No one had to drop out in late October. Citizens could cast ballots for the candidate they liked most, then back a major-party candidate of their choosing — sending a message without fearing it could backfire.

This is how democracy is supposed to work. Back in Alaska, Walker’s departure didn’t change the outcome. Mike Dunleavy, the Republican Walker had hoped to defeat with his exit, won nevertheless. Walker simply deprived voters of a choice. In Arizona, the Green Party candidate still collected 50,000 votes, a number larger than the margin of victory between Democrat Kristen Synema and Republican Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyMaine’s 2nd District outcome proves value of ranked choice voting Arizona airport says Trump campaign owes K from October rally The 5 most competitive Senate races of 2020 MORE. RCV would have allowed more robust campaigns.

Independent candidates for governor in Kansas and Connecticut, to name two races, finished with enough votes to have affected the outcome. RCV would have created a winner with majority support and a real mandate for action.

And multiple candidates for the U.S. Senate in Mississippi and secretary of state in Georgia will force December runoffs, pulling everyone back to the polls yet again and potentially allowing far fewer voters to dictate the winner. RCV would have saved money and ensured that everyone picked the winner.

Americans celebrate choice 364 days a year. Then on Election Day, anyone unsatisfied by the traditional Democratic or Republican offerings is deemed a spoiler, urged not to “waste their vote,” and warned not to help elect the major-party candidate they like the least. The results from Maine’s 2nd District are proof that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that better politics are well within our grasp.

David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote and the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” (Norton). Follow him on Twitter @davedaley3.