Think nothing can be done about the big partisan divide in the American electorate and the nasty political contests it engenders? Voters in Maine don’t agree. They voted 52 percent to 48 percent last month to try a promising remedy — ranked-choice voting. That makes Maine the first state in the nation to drop plurality rule in state and congressional elections in favor of the majority outcomes that ranked voting usually produces.
That result deserves notice in Minnesota. Ranked-choice voting will be used in city elections in both Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2017 — in Minneapolis for the third time, in St. Paul for the second. While voters in Duluth in 2015 rejected ranked voting in city elections, a number of other home-rule municipalities around the state are considering a switch.
Ranked-choice voting isn’t a magical elixir for all that ails U.S. politics. But it’s a feasible change that looks likely to make a positive difference, said one of the nation’s leading scholars of democracy, Stanford University’s Larry Diamond. Diamond last week addressed a gathering of FairVote Minnesota, the nonpartisan advocacy group that’s promoting ranked voting.
Ranked voting not only increases chances that the winner in a multicandidate race will achieve a majority. It also creates an incentive for candidates to craft messages with centrist appeal, Diamond said. And it invites more third-party participation by eliminating voters’ fear that by opting for a third-party candidate, they will reduce their second-choice candidate’s chances for victory.
“We need more choice in American democracy,” Diamond said. “Our system is stale and stagnant. It’s deeply undemocratic to have a duopoly in any realm of life, and that’s what we have now.”
Ranked voting would lead to campaigns that are less harshly negative and thus less costly, which in turn will make them less beholden to special interests, Diamond said.
“What is the single biggest cost in an election campaign? It’s all the television time bought to destroy your opponent,” he said. When candidates compete to be voters’ second as well as first choices, “driving up the negatives of your opponent, to win as ugly as you need to” would cease to be a winning strategy.
That change is becoming urgent. Highly negative campaigns are contributing to a degree of polarization within the U.S. electorate that Diamond called a dire problem. Representative democracy as Americans know it is threatened by a trend that has a growing share of adherents of both parties telling pollsters that they consider the opposite party “a threat to the nation’s well-being,” he said.
If the Minneapolis experience holds true in Maine, ranked-choice voting will likely face a legal challenge before its expected implementation in 2018 — and will survive that challenge nicely. Meanwhile, voting machine vendors are perfecting the automatic tabulation of ranked ballots, offering Minneapolis and St. Paul the prospect of speedier vote counts next year.
Election stewards — and voters — in both Maine and the Twin Cities should do their upmost to smooth the transition to ranked voting. They are in the vanguard of what may prove to be a healing change for an ailing democracy.