Voices & Choices

Ranked choice voting may affect partisan outcomes, but it always helps voters

Ranked choice voting may affect partisan outcomes, but it always helps voters

Maine’s historic first use of ranked choice voting (RCV) in congressional elections is drawing well-deserved national attention.

It was a largely successful first election, with Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap telling FairVote that he expects RCV to become an enduring “fixture” of Maine politics. Voter turnout was up, and more votes were counted in the RCV election for U.S. Senate than the non-RCV election for governor. Most importantly, the three major multi-candidate races empowered voters to choose the candidates they liked the most without fear of helping elect the candidates they like the least.

Ranking will play a key role in the outcome of the 2nd Congressional District race. In that contest, where the candidates and their allies spent more than $20 million, the Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin and his Democratic challenger Jared Golden were deadlocked at 46 percent of first choices, with Poliquin slightly ahead.

With no first round majority winner, the instant runoff was triggered. Within Maine’s current law and election administration capacity, that means physically moving many ballots and memory devices from voting machines to the state capital to tally the RCV winner.

As detailed in our news release and a Bangor Daily News featured story,  FairVote partnered with the Daily News and Colby College professors in an Election Day survey of more than 1,100 Maine voters in 16 polling places across the state. Based on our exit survey, we anticipate that Golden will decisively break the deadlock and emerge with a clear majority win.

Already there are some rumblings that ranked choice voting is a partisan tool designed to help Democrats like Golden. But such an analysis is simply wrong. Even a cursory view of American elections show that both major parties can be very successful at earning a majority of the vote in the right state or district. This year alone, all but one Republican who has won a Senate or governor’s race earned more than half of the vote -- as opposed to the six Democrats winning or leading in gubernatorial and Senate races without a majority of the vote.

A majority standard will also be good for Republicans in Mississippi. That state’s special elections for U.S. Senate will go to a November 27 runoff; Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith won only a slim plurality in the first round, but is heavily favored to win a majority in the runoff after nearly three-in-five voters backed Republicans in this week’s vote. (Notably, all overseas voters in Mississippi were offered a chance to return a ranked choice voting ballot for that runoff, a practice done by five southern states when they have federal runoffs.)

Ranked choice voting simply is a tool to uphold majority rule and give voters more freedom to support candidates they want and more opportunities for their voices to be heard. Sometimes it will help Democrats, sometimes it will help Republicans and sometimes it may help an independent or third-party candidate. But what it always does is help voters - they get greater choice and have a stronger voice and elect candidates who represent more voters, just as what one wants in a representative democracy.

When Ranked Choice Voting Might Help Republicans: U.S. Senate Elections, 1998-2016
To underscore that upholding the principle of majority rule is not intrinsically a problem for Republicans, FairVote looked back at key races for the U.S. Senate over 10 election cycles from 1998 to 2016. This instructive chart of 10 key Senate races that were won by Democrats show where their victory margin was smaller than the votes cast for right-of-center third-party and independent candidates:


Had runoff elections or ranked choice voting been employed in these elections, Republican candidates likely would have been favored to win in most of them. Republicans also lost U.S. Senate races by a plurality of the vote in Minnesota (2000 and 2008), Virginia (2006), and Missouri (2006). When Republicans have won Senate elections by a plurality, it often has been in spite of right-of-center candidates splitting the majority.

Two states require majorities to win U.S. Senate races: Georgia and Louisiana. Since 1990, Georgia has had two U.S. Senate runoffs, in 1992 and 2008. Republicans won both, including one in which the Democrats led in the first round. In that same period, Louisiana had four U.S. Senate runoffs, with Republican John Kennedy winning one in 2016 and Mary Landrieu winning two before losing a runoff in 2014 after leading in the first round.

That’s not to say that ranked choice voting and upholding majority rule is a Republican plot either. It’s quite simply good for democracy. The fact that Golden won a majority in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in our exit survey simply means he did a better job at connecting with the district’s independent voters to break the tie between the party’s bases.

As Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College observed, “All indications from the survey’s preliminary findings are that ranked choice voting passed its test. Candidates understood what they needed to do. We have no indication that voters had any difficulty. And the process will play out, as the second and third choice votes are allocated, just as it was intended.”

With Maine setting the example, we hope to see ranked choice voting adopted in states across the nation from all sides of the political spectrum.

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