Be Careful What You Wish For: The Unintended Consequences of Electoral Reform

California and Maine show how well-meaning efforts to encourage moderation can undermine political parties.

Long before polls pummeled politics, prognosticators depended on other forms of prediction. A favorite indicator was the returns from Maine, which traditionally voted in September (rather than November) because of fears that an early winter would make rural roads impassable. This gave rise to the cliché, which was used as early as the 1880 election, “As goes Maine, so goes the nation.”

That line lasted until September 1936 when Republicans were heartened as Alf Landon won 55 percent of the vote in Maine against Franklin Roosevelt. But that November, Landon won only one other state. James Farley, the Democratic national chairman, cracked, “As goes Maine, so goes Vermont.”

For many campaign reformers, Maine returned this week to its age-old bellwether role. Not only on Tuesday did Maine conduct its statewide primaries under a novel system in which candidates are ranked in order of preference, but voters also approved the continuation of the experiment by 54-to-46 percent in a statewide referendum.

Ranked-choice voting (also called “instant runoffs”) is designed to encourage centrism and, in many cases, independent candidates. In a multi-candidate election in which no contender wins a majority, the second-choice preferences of voters who backed candidates at the bottom of the pack are then tabulated.

As an example, here is how the system is currently working as the ballots are slowly being counted in Tuesday’s seven-way Maine Democratic gubernatorial primary in which no candidate won more than one-third of the initial vote:

The last-place candidate, who attracted fewer than 2,000 votes, is being dropped and the second choices of her supporters are being allocated to the other candidates. Then the process is repeated with the fifth-place finisher (and so on) until a remaining candidate hits the 50-percent threshold.

The New York Times endorsed Maine’s instant run-off in an editorial that argued that the system “encourages candidates to reach out to as many voters as possible, which ranked-choice advocates say generates more moderate politicians and policies that more accurately reflect what most people want.”

Well, maybe.

Maine’s enthusiasm for ranked-choice voting flows directly from public ire towards Paul LePage, the state’s bombastic right-wing Republican governor, who won two terms without ever garnering a majority. Might-have-been fantasies about the 2016 presidential election also power supporters of instant run-offs.

Nobel-Prize-winning economists Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen in an Op-Ed in the New York Times stress, “Both Bernie Sanders (the darling of liberal young people) and Michael Bloomberg (supported by numerous moderates) might have made an attractive candidate as an independent.” But, as the authors correctly point out, Bloomberg and Sanders were deterred by the impossibility of winning as an independent and the rightful fears of splitting the anti-Trump vote.

This problem would instantly disappear under various forms of instant runoffs since voters could have ranked Clinton and Bloomberg (in any order) as their top two choices in the confidence that there would be no wasted votes that would increase Trump’s chances of victory.

There is an under-appreciated danger, though, in trying to rejigger the electoral system in hopes of deterring future Trumps and LePages. Not only is the road to reform paved with unanticipated consequences, but also artificial efforts to encourage moderation undermine political parties.

Instant run-offs—as the Bloomberg example illustrates—would probably lead to the proliferation of independent candidates, especially self-funders. For the super-wealthy with political ambitions, there would no longer be a need to chance the vagaries of party primaries and endorsements. Instead, they could run as independents and hope that massive TV spending and ranked-choice voting would provide the ticket to victory in November.

For almost 150 years, since the rise of Tammany Hall and other urban political machines, good-government advocates have disdained partisanship. While the original target of the goo-goos was Boss-Tweed-style urban corruption, today the arch villain has become political polarization. How glorious it would be, reformers argue, if both parties could return to an era of deal-cutting moderation.

But, at the moment, only one political party has zoomed off the rails: the Republicans. While the Democrats have had their eras of left-wing exuberance (the 1972 George McGovern campaign and their three landslide defeats in the 1980s), the party has avoided being captured by the equivalent of a Tea Party movement. Nor have the Democrats ever been in thrall to a leader who radiates contempt for the norms of a free society and the rituals of rational policy-making.

There is a risk in trying to solve what turns out to be a short-term problem by tinkering with the mechanisms of politics. That is what California illustrates with its ill-conceived “jungle primary” in which the top two finishers—regardless of party—oppose each other on the November ballot.

In 2009, California seemed ungovernable as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the beleaguered moderate governor, was desperately trying to keep the state afloat amid the depths of the Great Recession. With the legislature gridlocked over the budget, the governor won the pivotal vote of a GOP senate senator by agreeing to an unusual demand—a statewide vote on dramatically upending the state’s primary system.

Proposition 14, as it became known, was approved by 54 percent of the voters in June 2010 with the support of Schwarzenegger. The Los Angeles Times editorialized for the reform using arguments on behalf of moderation that seem eerily similar to those currently deployed on behalf of ranked-choice voting: “Today’s primary system, as it exists in California, creates few incentives for liberals and conservatives to work with each other. All party primaries tend to bring out committed voters who generally are more extreme than the mainstream of their parties.”

Eight years later, California politics are unrecognizable for reasons that have scant connection to the passage of Proposition 14. The successful two-term governorship of Democrat Jerry Brown (Schwarzenegger’s successor) combined with the collapse of the statewide Republican Party because of its hard-right tilt, showed that California could be tamed after all—by traditional party politics.

But the hostility to partisanship embedded in California’s top-two system almost had disastrous consequences for the Democratic chances of winning back the House.

So many Democrats filed for Congress in the June 5 primary that it created a major risk that the vote would splinter so dramatically that two Republicans would end up opposing each other in key districts in November. Only a massive intervention by national Democrats prevented the party from being shut out in one or more winnable California House races. The Republicans were not so adept: The GOP will not have a candidate on the ballot for the Senate or lieutenant governor in November.

Perhaps voters in the northeastern corner of America will take their Maine chance and turn ranked-choice voting into a model for the nation. But the more likely outcome is that this well-intentioned effort will serve as a reminder that electoral reform should buttress the political parties rather than try to batter them into irrelevance.

This story was originally published by Brennan Center for Justice, where Walter Shapiro is a fellow.

Walter Shapiro

Washington Monthly contributing editor Walter Shapiro is a columnist for Roll Call, a fellow at the Brennan Center, and the author of a new book on his con-man great-uncle, Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Führer.