by Fred Horch
How we vote in Maine is a perennial source of frustration, especially in gubernatorial elections. The problem is our “vote for only ONE” ballots. In any election with more than two viable candidates, our ballot rules undermine the legitimacy of the declared winner. For example, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci was elected in 2006 with only 38 percent of the vote, and Republican Gov. Paul LePage was elected in 2010 with nearly the same percentage.
The solution is ballot reform. We can change from “vote for only ONE” ballots to “vote for ONE OR MORE” ballots. Approval voting, as this voter choice system is called, is an easy, affordable and constitutional way to count votes in Maine. Rather than forcing voters to abandon candidates based on polls taken before the election (as is happening during this election), approval voting gives voters the choice to vote for every candidate they honestly like. In practice, approval voting means simply counting all the votes on all the ballots, instead of throwing away ballots from voters who have voted for more than one candidate.
Any ballot reform measure in Maine runs up against the Maine Constitution, which provides for the election of state officials by “plurality” vote. This means that the person with the most votes wins, even without a majority. There are two ways to conduct a plurality-vote election: with a single choice ballot (vote for only one) or a voter choice ballot (vote for one or more). Either way, you simply count up the votes, and the person with the most wins.
The interesting thing about ballot reform in Maine is that approval voting is rarely mentioned. Instead, a completely different and more complicated system is more commonly proposed, even though it may pose greater constitutional problems because it is not a plurality vote. That other system is called ranked-choice voting. A citizen initiative for instant runoff voting, a form of ranked-choice voting used for municipal elections in Portland, was recently announced.
Ironically, citizens working for instant runoff voting ballot reform may actually provide an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the value of approval voting in Maine. Many different citizen initiatives on the same subject can appear on the same ballot; citizens can approve any, none or all of them. You don’t have to vote for only one. If you’re a Maine citizen, you can “vote for one or more” when it comes to citizen initiatives.
There is no risk of “splitting the vote” with citizen initiatives. Many different proposals for ballot reform can all compete in the marketplace of ideas and all appear together in a future election. You can vote for as many initiatives as you like; the one with the most votes will win. Let’s hope every group with a ballot reform idea is successful in their petitioning. Then voters will truly have a meaningful choice when it comes to the ballot reform we desperately need in Maine.