Ranked-Choice Voting: A Dangerous Experiment


Nick Morgoshia, Assistant Forum Editor

The 2018 midterms will be a time of many firsts for members of our community. For the freshly minted eighteen-year-olds, November 6 marks the inaugural day in their long, exciting journey as American voters. For the seasoned ballot-casters among us, this is the first opportunity to partake in a referendum on Trump’s presidency. For all those registered in Maine, this will be their first time–as well as our state and nation’s first time–electing United States Congressmen and Senators through a ranked-choice voting system.

In 2016, Maine approved ranked-choice voting through a referendum, becoming the first state to institute a system that governments across the country have been trying out for years. Mainers’ unusual choice stemmed from their opposition to Paul LePage, who surfed into the governor’s mansion in 2010 and 2014 on less than 50 percent of the vote. The new method, which promises to be more reflective of popular will, allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference (e.g. ‘first choice,’ ‘second choice,’ etc.). The individual securing a majority–that is, 50 percent plus 1 of the vote–is declared the winner. If no one gets the coveted number right away, votes are tabulated by gradually eliminating least popular candidates.

Throughout its young life, ranked-choice voting has been taken to the court, overturned by the state legislature, and faced constitutional challenges. And yet, Mainers kept fighting to preserve it. Earlier in 2018, Maine became the first state in the country to run its primaries on the basis of ranked-choice voting. Not only was that a democratically superior option, the argument has it, but enabling voters to rank their preferences translated into a more moderate base of candidates willing to appeal to the general electorate rather than ideological fringes. Can other states of the Union follow Maine’s suit? After all, “as Maine goes, so goes the nation.” I cannot help but hope that is not the case.

Ranked-choice voting–whether in Maine or elsewhere–presents a constitutional conundrum. Of the many freedoms vouchsafed by the Bill of Rights is the right to free association. According to the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in NAACP v. Alabama, “freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the ‘liberty’ assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Political parties are nothing short of associations of similarly-minded individuals dedicated to the election of candidates and promotion of policies that embody their beliefs. By that logic, how the selection process unfolds should be at the sole discretion of party members. Ranked-choice voting corrupts the spirit of association through interfering with the way parties would normally go about nominating candidates.

The opposing side might argue that open and blanket primaries–both established practices in multiple states–also violate the parties’ rights by allowing non-party members to vote. If they have never been successfully challenged at the Supreme Court, why should ranked-choice voting be any different?

Even if the constitutional question is taken off the table, there is an issue of ideological purity. Unlike countries with parliamentary systems–where ballots instruct citizens to vote for a party rather than a particular individual who is a member of that party–the American political arena is already that of personalities rather than partisan dynamics.

Luckily, our parties are still able to capitalize on the miniscule clout they have to act as ideological laboratories. Democrats’ commitment to expanding the social safety net and Republicans’ faith in fiscal responsibility; Democrats’ support of building international alliances and Republicans’ belief in acting alone should the need arise–some of the greatest debates in the history of US public policy have been brought to light, debated, and resolved as a result of the Democratic and Republican parties’ countervailing ideological credentials. Elections, in their turn, are how those credentials come into being. By taking the little power parties exercise over the electoral process and vesting it in the hands of ideologically inconsistent, oftentimes insufficiently informed voters, is all but guaranteed to upset this precious balance.