While we wait for ranked choice voting


It’s like deja vu all over again. 

Just like in 2010, three main contenders vie for Maine’s governor’s seat. Just like in 2010, it is looking unlikely at present that the majority of Maine voters will support our next governor. The cost of this outcome will again be a certain degree of delegitimation of our electoral outcome.

The League of Women Voters has been trying hard to get Maine to adopt ranked choice voting – also known as instant runoff voting – following Portland’s successful use of this system for their 2012 mayoral election. In ranked choice voting, people rank the candidates for individual seats in the order in which they prefer them. If you had a most-preferred candidate, but in addition there were one (or more) candidates whom you would be fine with electing, ranked choice voting allows you to communicate that.

The largest benefit is that your vote continues to count even if your top choice lacks sufficient support to win. In fields of more than two candidates, this means that the winning candidate will have gotten support from a majority of the total electorate, at least at some level on the voters’ rankings. Unfortunately it’s a very different approach to ballot-marking–  and ballot-counting — so I think there’s going to be a period of education and effort before they see success.

So while I agree with the Press Herald that ranked choice is better, the 2014 elections are upon us so it’s important to see what we have in the tool box already.

We’ve seen a couple of ways that people use procedures with broad current availability to vote strategically. Just as ranked voting allows people to throw support behind their second-favorite candidate rather than lose their opportunity to affect the outcome, other methods of strategic voting allow people to weight the probability of their preferred candidate’s success in casting their vote.

The two existing methods that people use to vote strategically are open primaries and frequent opinion polling.

Open primaries are in widespread use across the US, with 11 states using them for all elections and an additional 24 states having open rules for some primaries. Open primaries have also been the recent beneficiary of some good press. In its recent report, the Bipartisan Policy Center proposed the use of open primaries as a tool for reducing gridlock in federal politics. The Republican primary for Mississippi’s  2014 US Senate election, meanwhile, made for a pretty supportive backdrop to this report’s opening day. In elections where the district or jurisdiction is overwhelmingly captured by a single party, members of the minority party are all but guaranteed to be unable to affect the outcome of the election. This lack of support for the inevitable victor means that representatives are less likely to see those voters as people they need to represent accurately, leading to long-standing problems in democratic representation.

In Mississippi, the fact that the Republican primary run-off used the open primary rules meant that all voters, not just registered Republicans, were allowed to vote. As a result, Senator Cochran was able to reach beyond the small hardcore set of partisan primary voters in his run-off campaign and appeal to a much broader range of voters who would have an interest in supporting the more centrist candidate.

The effect of the open primary in this case was to effectively re-enfranchise all of the voters who would not have otherwise had a meaningful impact on the electoral outcome. Cochran’s perception of his constituency will almost certainly be affected by the results of his run-off election and his gratitude to those who supported him will probably now affect his lawmaking. Race is a particularly important part of this story since, well, Mississippi, and also because of the intensity of racial partisan polarization across the South. The open primary managed to bridge this substantial gap. As a result, people who would not have had a champion in Congress are now more likely to have one.

So how did Democratic voters know that it was important for them to come out for this election, which meant doing something unusual and voting in an opposing party’s primary? Polls revealed that the outcome in this election would be extremely close. The primary election itself even more convincingly showed how close the margin was for Cochran, providing the critical information necessary for strategic voting.

In general, while we don’t get two elections like this in a row, we now do have a similar ability to understand probable outcomes through frequent public opinion polling. Polling aggregators like HuffPost Pollster show how many polls are being taken in a multitude of races across the country, providing voters a pretty good idea of how things are trending for their preferred candidate.

Polling was very important to the story of Maine’s  2010 gubernatorial race. Real Clear Politics aggregated 16 polls taken in Maine between June 2010 and the November election. The final set of these polls can be seen in the image below:


There was no massive scandal, or glorious new program introduced in the final weeks of October. Instead, a number of Democrats realized that Mitchell was not going to be able to win over additional voters, and support for Cutler surged 25 percentage points: from a low of around 11% throughout early October to a final vote share of 36% of the electorate.

That kind of enormous change in the revealed preferences of the electorate demonstrates the substantial power of polling to allow an electorate to collectively estimate probabilities for their preferred candidates. While it’s not ranked choice voting, it is the same essence of strategic choice at work.

With increased access to polling data and analysis of polling data, voters are able to learn more about the preferences of the other members of their district. If a candidate is close to winning, they know that it’s worth backing that candidate. If a candidate trails persistently, that is also informative. In the case of Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial election, voters who preferred a candidate other than Paul LePage were able to make a collective last minute determination that Libby Mitchell could not gain sufficiently on LePage to win.

While we are seeing a version of this story playing itself out again in Maine, the trendlines are different from where they were at this point 2010. Nonetheless, the real difference is our improved ability to learn what the electorate prefers, through even more frequent polling, and through the established recognition that complicated elections require thoughtful strategic voting.

An imperfect solution next to ranked choice voting for sure, but something that we have the power to use right now.

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