Is ranked-choice voting in our future?

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One of the most interesting features of the election season was the emergence of Maine’s statewide ranked-choice voting system, a first in the nation. It works when more than one candidate is running for a single seat. Voters can rank-order all those on the ballot. The winner must earn at least 50 percent of the first-preference vote. If they do not, the candidate with the least first-ranked votes is eliminated, and his/her second-preference votes are divided between those in first and second place.

Generally, it works along these lines. Say four candidates are running for office, and the top two, candidates A and B, garner 120 and 90 votes, respectively. The fourth candidate, D, won 30 first-preference votes.

 

Candidate A120 votes43.7%
Candidate B90 votes32.7%
Candidate C35 votes12.7%
Candidate D30 votes10.9%

 

Candidate D is eliminated, and his second-preference votes are awarded to Candidates A and B. Candidate A won 25 second-preference votes and Candidate B, 5, of the total 30. This means that Candidate A now wins with 52.7 percent of the vote.

 

Candidate A145 votes52.7 %
Candidate B95 votes34.5%
Candidate C35 votes12.8%

 

Massachusetts is in many ways the birthplace of ranked-choice voting. In the 19th century, the great British philosopher John Stuart Mill promoted it in his 1861 book, “Considerations on Representative Government.” Concerning multi-seat districts, he wrote in his chapter on “true and false democracies” that “of all modes in which a national representation can possibly be constituted, this one affords the best security for the intellectual qualifications desirable in the representatives. At present … the only persons who can get elected are those who possess local influence, or make their way by lavish expenditure” — a clear echo of our 21st century debates concerning money in politics and campaign finance.

Mill got the idea from his friend, the barrister Thomas Hare, who in an essay called it “the single transferable vote.” He cited Hare’s plan as “among the very greatest improvements yet made in the theory and practice of government.”

Ten years later, MIT architecture professor William Robert Ware took up the idea and figured out a way to apply it to single-seat voting. Cambridge has used ranked-order voting since 1939, and for a while several other Massachusetts cities and towns did as well. But these jurisdictions eventually halted the process. Meantime, some colleges and universities like Harvard, MIT, and Tufts continue to use it today for alumni board and student government elections.

This was how, in Maine, Democrat Jared Golden defeated Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin in this year’s election. After the initial vote, Rep. Poliquin led by some 2,000 votes, but he failed to reach the 50 percent threshold to win. After the fourth candidate was eliminated and votes distributed, Golden gained most of the second-preference votes, and won by a mere 50.5 percent or 2,905 votes of some 600,000 cast.

Rep. Poliquin has sued, claiming the system is unconstitutional because it violates the one-person, one-vote principle that the Supreme Court established under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. His rationale is that some people are essentially voting twice: once in the “first round” when they list their preferred candidates in rank order and then again in the “second round” when their second-preference votes are redistributed.

The Constitution, however, leaves it to the states to determine “the time, place, and manner” of electing members of the House. And the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2011 upheld it in a suit against San Francisco, which also uses the system.

As Judge Marsha S. Berzon noted in her opinion for that court, the San Francisco ranked-choice system is as good as any other. After all, she concluded, “there is no perfect election system, and our search for one would prove no more successful than a hunt for the mythical snark,” a reference to Lewis Carroll’s 1876 famous nonsense poem about a search at sea for a nonexistent critter. Rep. Poliquin’s argument will likely fail.

Maine, for now, is the only jurisdiction that uses it statewide for federal elections. Amherst this year approved ranked-choice voting for town officials. It is not a complicated system, and it does not confuse voters. And it appears to be more democratic and fair. All Island towns ought to consider adopting it, and so should the commonwealth.

 

Jack Fruchtman, a seasonal resident of Aquinnah, teaches constitutional law and politics at Maryland’s Towson University.