The Good Fight

A New Choice

Maine’s experiment in ranked-choice voting is a rare cause for optimism about our democracy.

Voters wait in line to cast their votes in a gym, in front of red, white, and blue booths.
Voters wait in line to cast their votes at the Kittery Community Center in Kittery, Maine, on Nov. 8, 2016. Jill Brady/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

It would be easy to assume that the country is more divided now than it has been in many decades. On some days, it can feel as though Americans have neatly divided into cheerleaders and critics of Donald Trump. There is less and less ideological overlap between congressional Democrats and Republicans. Even ordinary citizens have become partisan in unprecedented ways: Back in 1958, 33 percent of Democrats and 25 percent or Republicans wanted their children to marry a spouse with the same political identification; “by 2016,” writes Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist, “60 percent of Democrats and 63 percent or Republicans felt the same way.”

On other metrics, though, America does not look that much more divided than it once was. Especially when it comes to actual policy preferences, it is not clear that the gulf between liberals and conservatives is deeper now than it once was. On every topic from immigration to redistribution, there is a surprising extent of overlap between the views of many Americans.

So perhaps it is not the deep partisan divide that is rending our institutions asunder—but rather our institutions that are responsible for the country’s deep partisan divide. And if that is the case, then perhaps institutional changes might help to overcome the poisonous atmosphere of this political moment.

That’s the hope of a set of political scientists, activists, and ordinary citizens who have advocated the use of “ranked-choice voting”—and just carried off a major victory in the state of Maine: Despite determined opposition from the local political establishment, they won a solid majority in a referendum that will change how the most important elections in Maine are carried out (and might just inspire similar reforms in other states around the country).

Most U.S. elections use the first-past-the-post system. In this system, the candidate with the highest number of votes carries a district, even if she gets far less than 50 percent of the vote. That has two concerning consequences. First, it can allow some extreme candidates to win even if they are strongly disliked by most of the electorate: If a number of ideologically similar candidates compete for the same pool of voters, a candidate with a narrow yet fervent fan base can win with as little as 30 percent or 35 percent of the vote. (Arguably, this is how Trump racked up primary wins early in the race for the Republican nomination.)

Second, it makes it extremely hard for new parties or movements to compete, perpetuating the duopoly that Democrats and Republicans hold over the American political system. In a first-past-the-post system, third-party candidates are likely to take votes away from ideologically similar candidates, making it more likely for candidates from the other end of the political spectrum to get elected. (Think of the role played by Ralph Nader in 2000 or Jill Stein in 2016.) This makes donors and voters less likely to support a long-shot candidate who’s closer to their views than a more electable one.

Ranked-choice voting solves both of these problems. In this system, voters get to rank candidates in order of their preference. During the 2016 primaries, for example, a Never Trump Republican could then have chosen Jeb Bush as her first choice, Marco Rubio as her second choice, Ted Cruz as her third choice, and Donald Trump as her last choice. If Bush got the lowest number of first preferences, her vote would not be wasted; instead, her preference would “transfer” to Marco Rubio, her second favorite. This process of “instant runoffs” would continue until one candidate had reached 50 percent. As a result, a candidate who is seen as the worst-case scenario by more than half of voters could no longer win an election. And because voters don’t have to fear that a vote for their preferred candidate would be “wasted,” it would also be much easier for new movements and candidates to rise.

That, of course, is also the reason why both Democrats and Republicans see ranked-choice voting as a threat to their power—and are likely to do what they can to stop its introduction. The case of Maine is instructive: After voters in the state first voted to adopt this system, local political elites from both parties went to ridiculous lengths to block its implementation. But the voters fought back. Against the odds, they forced a second referendum on the topic—and carried off an even clearer victory. As Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, told me:

This is a watershed moment: These were ordinary people who wanted better and less toxic government. They saw cynical politicians try to steal it from them but, in the dead of the Maine winter, they collected signatures to get ranked-choice voting back on the ballot, and got an even bigger victory. It just shows what civic spirit can do to renew democracy.

The ability of Maine’s voters to reform their electoral institutions despite the fierce resistance of the local political establishment—in fact, Paul LePage, the state’s governor, is still fighting a rear-guard action against it—really is inspiring. It shows that democracy is still able to reform itself in the face of dysfunction (and that those of us who are deeply committed to the basic rules of liberal democracy are not wedded to all aspects of the status quo). If similar grassroots efforts should succeed in other states across the union, it really could make a significant contribution both to stopping extremists who are unpopular with most of the population from taking over and to making Americans feel that their political system is actually responsive to their wishes.

At the same time, it is important not to invest too many hopes in institutional fixes of this sort. One of the remarkable things about authoritarian populism is just how successful it has proved across countries with vastly different institutions: Populists are now in power in the presidential system of the United States as well as the parliamentary system in Italy, and they have found a way of transforming the contours of political debate both in countries with proportional representation like Poland and in countries with majoritarian institutions like the United Kingdom.

The explanation for that remarkable transformation lies in a series of structural transformations including the stagnation of living standards, the arrival of a multiethnic society, and, of course, the rise of the internet and social media. Neither a relatively small fix like ranked-choice voting nor even a much larger change like the introduction of proportional representation is enough to counteract these long-standing drivers of populism. It will take much more than relatively minor institutional reform to fix our democracies and help them weather the danger of authoritarian populism.

And yet, the adoption of a new electoral system in Maine is a real ray of hope in dark times: If it is emulated elsewhere, it is much more likely to create real political competition and empower the kinds of leaders who actually might have the will to solve the biggest challenges we now face. And in the meantime, it demonstrates that there are still plenty of grassroots activists who, even in the face of dogged resistance, have the passion and the willpower to take ownership of their democratic institutions.