How people elect parliaments
Voters in the US state of Maine will vote on November 8 on whether to approve a change to the state’s electoral law to introduce preferential voting for all state and federal elected offices.
Maine would be the first US state to adopt such a reform.
Preferential voting is highly important to any political landscape with solid support in the electorate for independents or minor parties.
Strong third candidate performances in elections won under the plurality rule can result in unsatisfactory results if the plurality winner is opposed by a majority of voters.
The redistribution of the ballots of voters who supported the candidates who came third or further back in the count of ‘first preferences’ ensures that the winner of the election is the one with majority support.
Preferencing also gives voters much freer choice, as there is no need to engage in ‘tactical voting’ – casting insincere votes for candidates other than a voters’s preferred choice in order to help defeat a leading candidate that a voter really doesn’t want to win. Many Americans are in precisely that situation now, with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton being the two least popular leading presidential nominees since polling began.
Australians have been using preferential voting for almost a century, adopting it for national elections in 1919 and for all state elections by the 1930s.
In nearly 4,500 contests for seats in Australia’s national House of Representative since 1919, the candidate who was leading the initial count of first in preferences still won in over 93% of contests. Candidates placed second won 5.8% of contests, and on just seven occasions (0.16%) an election was won by the candidate initially placed third, when the ballots of voters supporting candidates placed even further back lifted them up during the preference distribution process.
Preferential voting – known as ranked choice voting or instant runoff voting in US terminology – would be significant to the politics of Maine, which has a strong tradition of independent candidates in elections.
Preferential voting in Maine could open up more voter choice (image: Bangor Daily News)
Maine has previously had two independent governors, and one of the state’s current US senators is independent Angus King, who also formerly served as Governor.
Current Governor of Maine, Republican Paul LePage, won the governorship in 2010 under the plurality voting rule. He first won the Republican nomination with 38% support among primary voters. The final election also saw LePage win 38% of the full Maine electorate, with independent Eliot Cutler winning 36% and the Democratic candidate 19%. Had preferential voting been in force at that point, Cutler would almost certainly have overtaken LePage and become Governor.
Governor LePage’s re-election bid in 2014 was also close, with the incumbent winning 48% of the vote, 4.8% ahead of his Democratic rival, and with 8.4% of voters supporting independent Eliot Cutler once more. Whilst unlikely to change the result that year, the flow of preferences from voters who supported Cutler might just have seen LePage defeated.
The 1994 contest for Governor in Maine was also deeply divided between three candidates. Independent Angus King won with the plurality of votes (35%) over the Republican (34%) and Democratic (23%) candidates. King would likely have won in any case had preferential voting been in force.
Recent media reports indicate that the preferential voting proposal is on track to succeed. Two polls have agreed that roughly 50% of voters support the measure, and 30% oppose it. But major state newspaper the Bangor Daily News has editorialised against the proposal.
Opponents have raised arguments that the new system would clash with the state’s constitution, which they say assumes the use of plurality voting, so post-election litigation is likely before the measure could come into effect for elections in 2018.
Supporters, including the campaign group Ranked Choice Voting Maine, are confident that the constitutional objections are weak.
Once known as a bellwether political state, it was common to say “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” If the state adopts preferential voting, it may be a harbinger of increased choice in other American elections.
Update: this issue is also well written up at The Conversation (US edition) by law professor and elections expert Steven Mulroy.