How people elect parliaments
Amidst the drama of the historic presidential election on November 8, voters in the US state of Maine endorsed a ballot measure to adopt preferential voting.
Using a public referendum, Maine electors voted 52% to 48% to adopt the proposed law for ‘ranked choice voting’, as it is known in the United States. (Americans also refer to preferential voting for a single seat as the ‘instant runoff method’, while British and Canadians refer to it as the ‘alternative vote’).
Preferential voting has been used in almost all Australian state and national elections since the 1920s.
The new Maine voting law is expressed to apply to all elections for state legislators and governors, and for state national congressmen and senators, held from 1 January 2018 onward. It does not apply to the future election of electors for the office of US president.
Maine has a strong tradition of third-party independent candidates, which disrupts the legitimacy of elections conducted under the plurality vote counting rule.
Independent Angus King has served as state governor in the past decade and is currently one of the state’s two national senators. There are also currently four independents in the state House of Representatives, elected in single-member districts by the plurality rule.
Using preferential voting in single-member electoral districts still presents a range of problems in achieving equal and widespread voter representation in legislative chamber elections. But in comparison to the plurality rule, preferential voting increases the range of candidate nominations, gives voters more meaningful and unconstrained choice, and partly improves the manner in which partisan campaigns are conducted.
Opponents of the reform law – including current Maine Governor Paul lePage, who has twice been elected to office without a majority of votes – may yet play a couple of constitutional delaying tactics.
The Maine state Constitution is expressed to require each town and precinct to count and report its votes locally. In theory this makes the vote counting process of eliminating candidates and redistributing their preferences awkward.
However the new law specifically describes its intended procedures, which are clearly workable. And modern communications technology can support systems to instruct local counting officials rapidly in how to proceed.
In Australian elections, election officials in each polling place not only count first preference votes on election night, but also sort all ballots into preferential totals between the two candidates expected to place first and second, allowing a preferential final result to be known on the night in all but the closest of contests. In rare cases – when the expected top two placings are upset by the voters themselves – this counting work becomes a small amount of wasted effort.
In any case, whenever one candidate is a clear winner of any election – which Australian experience suggests happens in over 90% of cases – the issue of preferences becomes a moot point.
More substantially, Maine’s Constitution also speaks specifically of candidates being declared elected if they win a ‘plurality’ of the votes for their office. This would seem to be a textual conflict with declaring winners through preferential vote counting.
However this constitutional issue was well understood in the lead-up to the vote, and was expressly referred to in the official descriptions of the bill on which the recent referendum was called. Voters made their decision fully advised about the constitutional text.
A constitutional amendment can be proposed by two-thirds majorities of each house of the state legislature of Maine. The Democratic party has a majority in the legislature’s House of Representatives, while the Republicans have a majority in the state Senate. So both major political parties would need to agree on the change. The state Governor has a veto, but two-thirds majorities in the legislature override him.
The constitutional alteration would then need to be adopted by the state’s people at a second referendum.
The Maine state legislature will need to amend the state’s Constitution to allow the voters’s referendum decision to be fully implemented (image: Wikipedia)
In theory, the recently adopted new electoral law could be implemented prior to a constitutional referendum, and would not affect the outcome of any specific seat or office elections which candidates win by vote majorities. But that would be messy.
Still, the new law has been formally adopted, so unless critics can get a court ruling that it is unconstitutional something needs to be done by the state’s leaders before the 2018 election cycle begins.
In November Maine voters also approved laws to liberalise the use of marijuana, establish a process for increasing the legal minimum wage, expand background checks for gun ownership, and enact a law allowing a 3% tax increase for household incomes higher than $200,000 in order to fund public education.