OPINION: Politics & Other Mistakes

Doesn’t add up

By Al Diamon | Nov 25, 2011

Ranked-choice voting “would ensure not only that the most popular candidate wins an election, but also that he or she wins by a clear majority of the voters,” said Jim Brunelle, Portland Press Herald columnist, on Aug. 13, 2004.

According to Justin Alfond, the former state director of the Maine League of Young Voters and now a Democratic state senator from Portland, in a Dec. 18, 2006, op-ed in the Morning Sentinel, “Maine would benefit when the winner … is supported by at least 50 percent of the voters, and [ranked-choice voting] accomplishes this.”

It’s not just liberals. Republican state Rep. Gary Knight of Livermore Falls is quoted in the March 13, 2007, Press Herald as saying, “There are many in the state who do not understand why someone can obtain an elected position without getting a majority of the votes.”

Ranked-choice “ensures … that the candidate that's elected always has majority support,” promised the website PortlandVotes123 earlier this year.

According to the Sept. 27 issue of the West End News, ranked-choice voting “is gaining popularity across the U.S. as more voters want to see a clear majority elect their leaders.”

On Nov. 13, a Press Herald editorial proclaimed Portland Mayor-elect Michael Brennan, who won Maine’s first ranked-choice election on Nov. 8, “will go into office next month with a majority of voters at his back.”

One more quote: “Except, he won’t.”

That’s me, right here, right now.

Contrary to all the coverage and campaign promises before and since Election Day, the victor didn’t win over at least 50 percent of those voting. Of the 19,588 valid ballots cast in that race, Brennan received some kind of support on 8,971 of them. That’s less than 46 percent.

What backers of ranked-choice neglected to mention last year, when they were convincing Portland voters to approve their system, were these uncomfortable truths:

Under ranked-choice, some people’s ballots count more than others.

And some don’t count at all.

To be precise, 3,525 of them didn’t figure in the final tally. As a result, Brennan won with an official – and fictional – total of 56 percent of the vote.

Those neglected votes weren’t overlooked. They weren’t thrown out because somebody spoiled their ballots. And they weren’t stolen away through political skullduggery.

They were cast aside because that’s how ranked-choice voting works.

For those not familiar with that system, it allows voters to rank the candidates in the order of their preference. If nobody gets a majority in the initial round, the last-place finisher is eliminated and those votes are reallocated to the next choice. That process is supposed to continue until somebody reaches the 50-percent threshold.

But that threshold is a moving target.

While backers of this system claim it empowers supporters of candidates with less name recognition, money, organization or sanity, the reality doesn’t work that way. If folks with oddball tastes in potential mayors backed a fringe dweller as their first choice, but also failed to give at least one of the top two contenders a vote in the later rounds, their ballots eventually became “exhausted.”

As far as the vote counters were concerned, they no longer existed.

In this election, any ballot that didn’t contain a vote for either Brennan, the eventual winner, or Ethan Strimling, the runner-up, fell into the electoral abyss. By the time the counting was completed nearly 18 percent of valid ballots had been cast into the darkness.

In most elections in which such a high percentage of voters are officially ignored, the winner would have a familiar name, such as Hugo Chavez, Bashar Assad or Kim Jong-Il.

Ranked-choice voting has been hailed as a huge success in Portland, even though it took a long time to pick a winner and cost a lot of extra money. But what would have happened if the city had used a conventional ballot, one where everybody got just a single selection?

First, it’s unlikely there would have been 15 candidates. At least half the qualifiers would have been bright enough to figure out they had no chance and returned to their hobby of making aluminum-foil hats to protect themselves from Central Maine Power’s smart meters. With fewer contenders, the campaign would have been less unwieldy, allowing for meaningful debates, something that was impossible with so many fruitcakes in the field.

Second, the results would have been the same. Brennan still would have won, since he took the prize in the first round. Strimling still would have come up short. Everybody else would have been back in the pack. Even if the winner didn’t earn a majority, he still would have been the consensus favorite.

Third, all the ballots that were correctly filled out would have been counted in the final tabulation. Nobody would have been relegated to the “exhausted” pile.

And finally, the public wouldn’t have been promised something ranked-choice voting can’t deliver:

A fairer election.

Rank my efforts by emailing aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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