At least one good thing emerged from the fevered swamp of the 2016 election: voters in Maine approved ranked-choice voting for future elections, becoming the first state to do so. Pennsylvania and others ought to do the same.
Ranked-choice voting restores majority rule and — at the same time — gives people the freedom to vote for a third-party candidate without worrying that by doing so they will elect the contender they like least. There is also evidence that it reduces negative campaigning. And tell me you wouldn’t want that after our just-completed “race to the bottom” hit bedrock.
It’s not a new concept. Nearly 40 years ago, former Penn State professor Peter Fishburn explained a version of it to me, based on an academic paper that he wrote. It’s been used for 120 years by a handful of city governments and private associations. It is the recommended way of voting by Robert’s Rules of Order.
It works like this. Rather than just picking one contender, voters rank the candidates by preference: first, second, third and so on. If no one gets 50 percent of the ballot after the first-choices are tallied, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. But the voters who preferred that losing man or woman then have their second choices allocated. The votes are then recounted. The process continues until one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the total.
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Ranked-choice voting makes sure that the candidates with the most votes and broadest bases of support win. Candidates who are opposed by a majority of voters can never win ranked-choice voting elections. With this system, your vote is never wasted in an election with more than two candidates. If your favorite can’t win, your vote counts for the person you ranked second.
As the League of Women Voters in Maine put it, “You never have to vote for the ‘lesser of two evils’ when there is another candidate you really like.”
Ranked voting was ballot question No. 5 in Maine this year and while on vacation in that state last month we saw “Yes on Five” signs all over. On Election Day the voters agreed, 52 percent of them. So ranked-choice voting will now be used in Maine’s statewide elections. The problem in Maine has been that races with more than two candidates are common. In nine of the last 11 races for governor, for example, the winners were elected by fewer than half of the voters.
There is hope that ranked-choice voting will also sweeten campaigning. Kyle Bailey, operations manager for “Yes on Five,” told Boston.com that ranked choice is a disincentive to negativity and an incentive to broaden a candidate’s appeal.
“Under the old way,” Bailey said, “when you’re knocking on doors and see a yard sign for another candidate, you skip that house and go to the next door. With ranked-choice voting you couldn’t do that. Candidates have to knock on that door, talk to that voter and ask, if they couldn’t be their first choice, could they be their second choice?”
A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Iowa and Western Washington U. found voters in seven cities using ranked-choice voting reporting less negative campaigning than did electors in cities that did not use ranked choice.
It has bipartisan support. Republican Sen. John McCain has said that ranked-choice voting “will lead to good government because voters will elect leaders who have the support of a majority. Elected leaders will be more likely to listen to all.” President Obama also has said he supports the idea.
Of course, Pennsylvania is rarely among the early adopters of any innovation. But maybe the grimy 2016 elections will help people realize that we just can’t continue to campaign in the corrosive, trust-destroying way that we have. And that there is a healthier way to choose people for office.
As Rob Ritchie, executive director of the electoral reform group FairVote told Boston.com, “Maine’s groundbreaking victory promises to inspire other states to embrace this better system.” I hope he’s right.
Dick Jones lives in State College.