Ranked choice voting’s persuaders

By John Frary

Mainers seem to take voting more seriously than citizens of other states. Our 2014 participation topped the nation’s at 59.3 percent. We beat the next highest, Wisconsin (56.9 percent), handily and ran way ahead of the 36.3 percent national average. Voters in conservative Texas (28.5 percent) and liberal New York (28.8 percent) appear woefully apathetic by comparison.

We deduce a relationship between high participation rates and Mainers’ attraction to measures designed to improve the democratic process. The latest such measure concerns ranked choice voting (RCV). The Maine ranked choice voting initiative, known as Question 2, was approved last November by a margin of 52.12 percent to 47.88 percent. The RCV passion didn’t suddenly grip the minds and imaginations of 388,273 Maine voters late some night in 2016. Persuasion was necessary. The Maine Commission on Government Ethics and Election Practices records reveal the names of the organized persuaders.

These were the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, The Chamberlain Project PAC, The Chamberlain Project BQC, Fair Vote – BQC, GreenME PAC, Maine People’s Alliance – BQC, Maine Democratic Party, Libertarian Party of Maine, Maine Green Independent Party and the League of Women Voters of Maine. Cassius Longinus, a Roman magistrate, was famous for a signature question, “Cui Bono?” (“Who benefits?”) and this Latin phrase has endured to the present day as vital to criminal investigation. It’s indispensable for establishing motive.

The Maine Republican Party and allied organizations didn’t see enough “Bono” in defeating Q2 to justify spending money for its defeat. Ballotpedia reports that as of January 2017 organizations supporting Question 2 raised a total of $2,944,419.44. Its opponents could not raise even the 44 cents. The major contributors were the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting: $768,364.21; The Chamberlain Project PAC, $136,950.72; The Chamberlain Project BQC, $669,849.28; Fair Vote – BQC, $374,746.80; and the Maine People’s Alliance – BQC, $994,508.43.

The Maine People’s Alliance tilts so far left that it’s very nearly vertical, so we can assume that it hopes RCV will produce a boost to left-lurcher political power. But what Bono do the others hope for? The Fair Vote Ballot Question Committee received its funding from Takoma Park’s national Fair Vote organization. That’s Takoma Park, Md., not Takoma Park, Maine. Maine has no Takoma Park. So why are these Marylanders so interested in our elections? The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting depends on John and Mary Palmer of San Francisco for 16.8 percent of its funding, on NYC’s Jonathan Soros for 5.6 percent and on the Chamberlain Project for 24.3 percent. Why do they care about Maine’s elections?

The Project is supported by Level the Playing Field, which is supported by hedge fund tycoon Peter Ackerman, and the Action Now Initiative of Houston, Texas. The Action Now Initiative is financed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which also funds Fair Vote. Laura and John Arnold are hedge fund billionaires whose donations to Barack Obama place them on the leftish end of the political spectrum. Ackerman is a libertarian with numerous Republican affiliations.

Cui bono? A clean and trim answer is elusive, because there’s no telling who will benefit from RCV if and when it’s implemented. Some Republicans imagine elaborate plots and schemes by the Maine People’s Alliance to manipulate elections using ranked choice. The Greens and Libertarians see RCV as a wedge that may help them break the two-party political oligopoly. The Democratic Party, believing that RCV would have saved them from Paul LePage, may be projecting the past into the future. All of this is speculative and none of it can be proven or dismissed unless and until RCV is actually implemented.

There are always abstract ideals mixed in with political calculations, so the Bono question does not fully explain the solicitude that these Texans, New Yorkers, Washingtonians, Marylanders and San Franciscans show for Maine’s voters. Do they hope our state will provide the thin edge of the wedge for a national transformation? Maine is an inexpensive media market. It is seen as a swing state with a moderate political climate. This makes it an ideal political guinea-pig state.

We have seen that the left-lurchers often find a few Maine Republicans to support “good government” measures. Peter Mills, and other like-minded Republicans, have never felt the need to explain why he suffers no discomfort at finding himself allied with the Maine People’s Alliance.

Retired history teacher John Frary of Farmington is a former candidate for U.S. Congress.

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