Scott MacKay Commentary: Should RI Adopt Ranked Choice Voting?

Jun 15, 2018

Rhode Island’s last two governors - Lincoln Chafee and Gina Raimondo - were elected with far less than 50 percent of the vote. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says Maine may have a better way of electing governors.

Voters in the land of lobsters, cod and L.L. Bean last week approved a new system. It  makes Maine the first state in the nation to adopt an election change called Ranked Choice, or Instant Runoff voting. Ranked choice has been used in communities from California to Massachusetts, but Maine is the first to endorse it in state elections.

Under ranked choice, a voter ranks candidates in order of preference. If no candidate is ranked first by more than 50 percent of the electorate, the candidate least often ranked first is dropped. The process is repeated until a candidate does get 50 percent of the top ranking. That candidate has majority support and wins.

Rhode Island governor elections were once simpler affairs. The winner of the Democratic primary faced off against the winner of the Republican primary. Occasionally there were marginal candidates who provided humor to campaigning, but they weren’t serious aspirants. Rhode Islanders of a certain age will remember a fellow who stumped in a top hat and called himself “Love 22.”

Recent elections have gotten more complex. In both 2010 and 2014, gubernatorial elections featured multi-candidate races. The result was that both Lincoln Chafee, running as an independent, and Democrat Gina Raimondo were elected with much less than fifty percent.

Chafee won with about 36 percent and Raimondo with smidgen more than 40. Both captured the Statehouse by carrying what would generally be the losers’ share in a blow-out of a two person campaign.

In our divisive time, it’s difficult to shape a governing consensus when you are elected with such a small slice of the electorate. Such elections breed distrust in a democracy that faces more than its share of challenges.

There are other ways to fix this problem. The state, could, for example, restrict the number of candidates by making it harder to qualify for the ballot. To make the ballot for governor now requires that a candidate get 1,000 signatures of registered voters. That isn’t much in a state of a million people. Raising that threshold to say, 10,000, could help weed out frivolous candidates.

But democracy is arguably stronger when more choices are heard and unconventional  ideas are floated. The American system has long benefitted from proposals originally advanced by third party aspirants, including Social Security.

Another way to ensure that a governor is elected with a majority would be to hold a run-off election between the top two finishers. That, too, has a downside. Runoffs, as is the case with all special elections, usually draw far fewer voters than general elections. And taxpayers have to pay for the extra election.

Ranked voting has attracted support from across the spectrum in Rhode Island, where liberals such as former State Rep. David Segal of Providence and conservatives such as Rep. Blake Filippi of Block Island have voiced support.

Democracy will always be messy; the worst system of governing, except for all the others, as Churchill famously said. And you can’t ever take the politics out of it. In Maine, political experts say much of the support for ranked choice voting comes from voters upset with Paul LePage, a Donald Trump-supporting conservative governor elected twice with less than a majority.

In Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, voters used ranked choice to elect mayors. But the system was scuttled after a left-leaning mayor who was seen as ineffective won city hall.

Ranked choice is used in cities across the nation, including San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis and  Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Maine, the new system gained tractgion after nine of the past 11 elections for governor were won with less than a majority of votes.

Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea says the Maine system is “intriguing.” She says it’s worth studying. Yet she is concerned that it would prove confusing and be difficult for voters to grasp.

Rhode Island  does have  legions of elderly voters who have been casting ballots under the same system since they first voted for Eisenhower or Kennedy. Yet, voters have also accepted changes over the years, including the switch from boxy voting machines with straight party levers to marked ballots tallied by computer scans.

There are no panaceas in conducting elections. Some voters will inevitably dislike the results. But it seems like a good time to take a closer look at what Maine has wrought.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard on Monday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org