Robert A. Levine 6-21-18
Citizens are always looking for a way to improve the nation’s political system, though politicians do not always agree with citizens’ ideas. State legislators do not necessarily try to enact concepts originating with their constituents, particularly if they impact the legislators’ power in some way or interfere with the electoral process that brought him or her to office in the first place. However, it is possible at times for the electorate to make an end run around the lawmakers by collecting enough citizens’ signatures to have a state referendum on the particular issue.
If the issue receives a majority of the votes in the referendum it becomes law, though sometimes legislators still try to delay its starting point. They may also find some obscure past regulation or law that negated the referendum. This occurred recently in Maine, but it appears that the voters were able to overcome the dirty political games played by their legislators.
Proposition 14, a referendum issue on the California state ballot to institute a non-partisan blanket primary, (also known as a jungle primary) was passed by the residents of California in 2010 with nearly 54 percent of the vote. The legislation enacted by Californians had statewide and Congressional candidates seeking office enter this non-partisan blanket primary, regardless of party affiliation. However, candidates had to be listed on the ballot with the party they were registered with. The primary occurred in June with the top two candidates for each office facing each other in the general election in November.
Though this appeared to be a reasonable way to get the two most popular candidates as the finalists for the office, it turned out that there were problems with the concept. In 2012, 2014, and 2016, in many Congressional districts there were either two Democrats or two Republicans running against each other. However, these districts had a long history of supporting a single party so it was not surprising. And two Democrats ran against each other for the Senate in 2016.
But a possible problem appeared on the horizon in 2018. With the backlash against Trump, a multitude of Democrats ran for different offices. Even though these districts were overwhelmingly blue, it was possible the Democrats could have been shut out in these districts and two Republicans would be running against each other. How could that happen? Easily enough. Suppose there were seven Democrats and two Republicans running in a Congressional district. The top Democrat got 14 percent, the next one 13 percent, and the other five 8 percent each. All together the Democrats polled 67 percent of the vote. The two Republicans got 17 and 16 percent each, finishing first and second in the district. Even though the Democrats had 67 percent of the vote and the Republicans 33 percent, the two Congressional candidates from this strongly Democratic district would be Republicans. Fortunately, this did not come to pass, but it is something that should be considered for the future and the structure of the primary changed.
Maine took a different path to changing its voting process. Collecting enough signatures, they had a referendum and passed a ranked choice voting system (RCV). In this method, when a person fills out a ballot for a party primary, the voter marks his or her first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on, depending on the number of candidates. If there is no one on a majority of ballots in the first round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his or her second choices are distributed to the remaining candidates. If there is still no majority, another candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his or her votes distributed to the remaining candidates. This continues until someone has a majority. This method is the fairest because a candidate must be on a majority of the ballots. Also, it helps independents who are running without party backing and party money. It seemed to work well in the recent primaries. Maine’s current Governor LePage was elected with 38 percent of the ballots and turned out to be a bigoted, racist official without majority backing.
In the past, if there were a number of candidates running for an office, the winner might get by with less than 50 percent of the vote, possibly even 25 percent. It is hoped that with RCV, candidates will be more collegial towards each other trying to get second or third place votes if someone is eliminated. More moderates and more independents might also enter the races with chances of winning on the second or lower ballots. The voters approved this system in 2016, and the Republican controlled legislature repealed the law a year later with some prominent politicians opposed to it. There have also been a number of lawsuits against it. When the Maine voters went to the polls in June, they reaffirmed to keep the ranked choice voting system.
Politicians and analysts around the country are watching Maine to see if the system works well, as there is a move for ranked choice voting in many cities and states. Some opponents say it’s too complicated and it takes too much study to learn about the candidates. But isn’t that what the country needs. The way our political system is structured now certainly hasn’t resulted in the best candidates getting elected or having a government that functions well. Perhaps ranked choice voting for every primary and every general election for every office would improve our democratic system. Change is necessary.