Absentee ballot
Credit: Zoe Thacker/ U.S. Airforce

Not infrequently, a Republican or Democratic candidate for office loses by a narrow margin and people point at a third party candidate who is supposedly to blame. For Republicans, this is usually a Libertarian who got more votes than the difference between the two major party candidates. For the Democrats, it is usually a member of the Green Party. There’s undeniable merit to these charges, but it’s also impossible to know how third-party supporters would have voted if they didn’t have their preferred candidate as an option.

It’s probably safe to say that Al Gore would have won Florida outright (and thus the presidency) in 2000 if Nader hadn’t been on the ballot. Hillary Clinton could probably say the same about Jill Stein. But people still argue about these elections because there’s no clear way to know for sure what would have happened in one-on-one races.

Maine has devised a solution, and we can now see the results. Incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin, who represents the state’s 2nd Congressional District, took a plurality of the vote on Election Night. He did not, however, get a majority. In some southern states, that would lead to a second runoff election between the top two finishers. But in Maine, the voters were asked to list the candidates in order of preference.

With ranked-choice ballots, if no one gets an initial majority, all but the top two finishers are dropped and votes for other candidates are reassigned. When this was done on Thursday, the Democratic candidate Jared Golden pulled ahead and was declared the winner.

We can surmise what happened. There were more third-party voters who listed Golden above Poliquin as a second choice, which allowed Golden to leap ahead of Poliquin and claim a majority.

With this system, you can vote for a left-leaning third-party candidate instead of the Democrat or a right-leaner instead of the Republican without worrying that it will change the election result in a way you don’t support. It gives you the option to support the candidate you like without guilt or extraneous considerations interfering in your decision. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t prefer this system to what we have in the rest of the country.

I’d think third-parties would support it because it gives people more permission to consider their candidates. It should make it easier for them to occasionally finish in the top two. The major parties should like it in general (if not necessarily in every individual case) because it prevents fake candidates from running as spoilers who will peel away support.

I very much doubt we’d have suffered through eight years with George W. Bush as our president if we had had ranked choice voting, and we almost definitely wouldn’t be dealing with President Trump now. But the best thing about ranked choice voting is that we wouldn’t have to wonder. More people in Maine’s 2nd district preferred Jared Golden to Bruce Poliquin, so they got the representative they wanted.

That didn’t happen for the country in 2000 or 2016. I guess Republicans won’t like this system after all.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com