Republicans’ baseless, baffling war on ranked-choice voting

It’s been quite a week for ranked choice voting in Maine. Even if one read Politico’s excellent piece on the topic, which goes back to Joshua Chamberlain and the near-civil war in Maine during the late 19th century, one still wouldn’t have the whole story, as events are so fast-moving.

This week, the courts made clear that Secretary of State Matt Dunlap should proceed with his efforts to implement Ranked Choice Voting during the June primaries. That hasn’t stopped Republicans from trying to raise every bad faith objection possible to obstruct its implementation. Even after the ruling, Senate Republicans made the highly unusual move of granting power to Senate President Mike Thibodeau to challenge ranked-choice voting implementation in the courts on slightly different grounds.

One day later, Democrats tried to rectify the stalemate by introducing a measure to that would provide the technical fixes Republicans say are necessary for ranked-choice voting’s implementation. That measure died in a tie vote. (Notably, Democratic Senator Dawn Hill, who voted for Thibodeau’s measure and for other recent conservative legislation, including lowering the minimum wage, was absent for this vote.) It’s made obvious by their opposition that Republican objections to ranked-choice voting are not of the innocent, technical variety. For some reason, Ranked Choice Voting has become a partisan issue, with members of the GOP appearing to believe that it poses some kind of ideological or political threat and they’re pulling out all the stops to thwart it. This naturally raises the question: Is that true? Is RCV bad for Republican candidates or against conservative ideology? And if not, why are they so opposed to its implementation?

While many progressives support ranked-choice voting because they (probably rightfully) believe that Gov. Paul LePage would not have been elected in 2010 under that system, it’s worth remembering that most polling in 2014 indicated that LePage would have been re-elected, even under a ranked-choice system. For further evidence that elections with multiple candidates, even in a run-off system, do not necessarily benefit progressives, one could examine my two runs for office in Lewiston. In both 2015 and 2017, independent candidates primarily split conservative votes, to my advantage. Although I won the most votes in the general election, I was unable to win the run-offs.

My support for ranked-choice voting, which also seeks to eliminate the effect of “spoiler” candidates that draw votes away from the top finishers, is not because of some perceived political advantage. It’s simply about fairness. Majority rule is axiomatic with democracy. Our elected officials should represent most voters in their district. And if they aren’t those voters’ first choice, then at least they represent the majority of their preferences.

I really don’t think that perspective needs to be partisan. Democracy is democracy. Fairness is fairness. Further, ranked-choice voting isn’t even going to be implemented during the general election in 2018. Republicans can’t be worried that it hurts their chances this November, so perhaps there is a negative impression about what it does for their candidates in June.

Ranked-choice voting would seem to advantage underdog candidates that might typically fail to gain a plurality of votes in the first round. Yet, oddly, some of the most conservative Republican gubernatorial candidates seem most interested in resisting Ranked Choice Voting implementation. For example, Sen. Garrett Mason, simply by virtue of having been a Republican for the whole of his political career, is one of the only legitimately conservative Republicans running for governor. Despite this, he has failed to achieve front-runner status, with former Democrat Mary Mayhew and former independent Shawn Moody running ahead of him, according to the data we have so far and what seems to be conventional wisdom about the race. One would therefore expect him to support ranked-choice voting in the hope that, when Rep. Ken Fredette is eliminated in the first round of voting, Mason would earn enough of his supporters to consolidate a big enough conservative base to outdo either Mayhew or Moody. But he isn’t doing that.

Maybe Republicans have some kind of ideological opposition to Ranked Choice Voting, more powerful than immediate political interest. If that’s the case, it’s not clear what it is. The GOP has done a very poor job articulating an argument against the system outside of legal minutiae. The new system does not seem to pose any threat to “free markets,” gun ownership, the well-being of the wealthy, the over-policing of women’s bodies, or ensuring the exclusion of immigrants from society—the top priorities, near as I can tell, of the conservative agenda. Ranked-choice voting is about…ranking candidates. It’s hard to see why it makes sense to go to the mattresses.

What, then, is the explanation? Here’s the best I can come up with: One’s conservative credentials no longer depend on adherence to an ideology, or even partisan advantage. Conservatism now is just about backing the craziest person in the room, whoever most wants to watch the world burn. It’s worth noting that this is a completely anti-conservative notion. In the long tradition of conservative politics, stretching from Machiavelli through Hobbes to Kissinger, conservatism has been about conserving the existing social order—not pushing it to the edge of chaos by, for example, trying to undermine the legitimacy of elections a few months before important votes.

I discuss this idea in more detail on this week’s podcast.

I’d put my money on Dunlap, his ferociously-meticulous election administrator, Julie Flynn, and all the voters and other elected officials of good will who are dedicated to ensuring a stable, free, and fair election this June. I think ranked-choice voting will be put in place and will perform well. But at a certain point, these broader issues of chaos and order have to yield a realignment of the parties. At some point, actual conservatives–people who value order, decency, elected officials as moral role models– will no longer be able to stomach the recklessness of this Republican Party. That is probably the most important political trend to understand in our times right now, and it is deeply tied to politics of race, gender, and class. It’s hard to predict how it will all shake out, but I think the first successful, statewide ranked-choice election will be a good start towards a much more hopeful future.

Photo: Michael R./ Creative Commons via flickr

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