The campaign, balloting and implementation of ranked choice voting occasioned no shortage of skepticism, challenges and outcries. We should know — The Ellsworth American expressed doubts about the citizen initiative from Day 1. But we’ve had our day. The time has come to accept ranked choice voting for what it is: the law of the land.
U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker’s ruling last week put to rest who won this year’s U.S. House election in Maine’s 2nd District. And though outgoing Rep. Bruce Poliquin continues his resistance, the country’s first congressional election to be decided by ranked choice voting is over. The victor is Jared Golden.
Poliquin hoped for a victory in a recount, but the early indications — on top of Judge Walker’s rejection of his constitutional objections — caused the incumbent to call off the recount. But he has not conceded.
Judge Walker’s opinion shows that the Constitution, though old, is not ossified. It gives the states room to improve, experiment and innovate.
Poliquin’s contention was that ranked choice voting was unconstitutional because it violates norms of vote counting that have been around for a long time. A lot of norms have been around for a long time, some deservedly because they work, others only because too few citizens were willing to undertake the work and risks to change a process that had not kept up with the times.
Changing norms is not new. Walker noted that paper ballots were a new idea at the time of the nation’s founding. Secret ballots were an innovation. And for a long time, only men of property and no women could vote. That system was time-honored, though “honor” hardly seems the word.
Over time, new norms emerged through constitutional amendments and statutes passed on the state and federal levels. Nor have the books closed on innovation. If there were no room for interpretation, why have a Supreme Court?
Judge Walker wrote that “the American experiment in republican-representative government neither began nor ended with ratification of the Constitution. The values that informed Article I not only inspired the Revolution, but also continued a purposeful evolution in our national experiment in representative government.”
The ranked choice voting referendum of 2016 was part of that evolution. A group of citizens determined that our tradition of multi-candidate elections decided by a plurality could hurt moderates and empower those fringe candidates who had a passionate following. They said it also required strategic voting for anyone who wanted to make sure that they didn’t help elect their least favorite candidate by “wasting” a vote on someone who couldn’t win.
Proponents did the work of gathering signatures, educating voters and winning on Election Day. When the Legislature tried to sideline the new law, supporters gathered signatures again and forced another people’s vote and scored another win. Although we continue to believe that Maine’s citizen initiative process needs work, the will of the people has come across not once but twice. And a learned judge has said ranked choice meets the constitutional test. Enough.
Ranked choice offers voters the opportunity to express their preferences among the candidates. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, runoffs begin with the lowest vote-getter eliminated in each round. If their first-choice candidate is eliminated, a voter’s second choice is counted. The process continues until one candidate breaks 50 percent of the vote. This time out, the candidate with the most votes was Jared Golden.
Supporters say that this system favors candidates with broad appeal and eliminates worry about spoilers. Let’s see if it does. Experiments don’t always turn out as planned. But, as the judge makes clear, we have the tools to change it again if it’s not working.
“Whether (ranked choice voting) is a better method for holding elections is not a question for which the Constitution holds the answer,” he wrote. “By design, the freedoms and burdens of self-governance leave normative questions of policy to be worked out in the public square and answered at the ballot box.”
The Constitution has its share of prohibitions — but let us not overlook its capacity to emancipate and empower.