This election cycle has already been an incredibly unusual one, given the low quality of candidates provided by both major parties. But there is another dimension and norm being tested in Maine in 2020, and two other states, Alaska and Massachusetts, will decide whether or not they wish to try it out as well. So what exactly is Ranked Choice Voting and why does it matter?
Ranked choice voting is exactly what it sounds like, a voter ranking all of their options on their ballot from most favorable to least. The first round of balloting would then count all of the ballots’ first choice options. If a candidate wins more than half of all votes, they would win the race outright. If, however, no candidates gain more than half of all votes cast then the candidate receiving the least votes would be eliminated. This is where the ranking comes in. The second choice on all of the ballots for the eliminated candidate would now be counted toward the total of that candidate. Lather, rinse, repeat until a winner can be declared.
So for example, in Maine, which had roughly 730,000 voters in 2016, it would come into play if the election plays out similarly to that one. If Biden were to have the same percentage that Hillary Clinton did in 2016, 47.83%, and Trump were to repeat his performance at about 44.87%, the rest being split between six other candidates. The lowest of these, Cherunda Lynn Fox, received seven votes, would be removed from the race. Those ballots would then count toward the voters’ second choice, in this case more likely to be divided between the other third party candidates, but with such a small total it wouldn’t move the needle. The next lowest candidate, Laurence Kotlikoff, would then be removed, with the next choice down on each of those ballots being distributed, in this case 16 votes. Again, not likely to change the outcome. But as we move up the ballot, the next candidate, Darrell Castle, had 333 votes, and then Evan McMullin with 1887 votes — enough for a quarter of a percentage point.
As we continue to move up the list, it begins to get interesting. Since most of the independent or unaffiliated candidates are often loathe to vote for the Republican or Democratic candidates. In Maine in 2016, for example, there were eight candidates who received votes. Of those, two were on the left (Democrat Hillary Clinton and Green Party candidate Jill Stein), while five of the others were on the right (Republicans Donald Trump, Evan McMullin, and Cherunda Lynn Fox, Constitution Party candidate Darrell Castle, and Reform Party candidate Laurence Kotlikoff), and even the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is a former Republican as well. That implies that a fair share of those third party votes would continue to combine until most of them ended up in the Trump column. That would have made Maine a Trump win in 2016 instead of a Biden win. With Maine’s unusual way of splitting their electoral votes, it would probably have given Trump another two electoral votes at the expense of Clinton. Not enough to change the outcome, but on a large scale with states taking this approach, it could make all the difference.
Where this really comes into play would be in states with more third party voters, such as Alaska, or states where one party is almost certainly not going to receive a lot of votes, like Massachusetts, where there is a possibility of second choice votes going to a third party candidate, especially in a year when few Democrat voters are voting for Biden but rather against Trump. It stands to reason that Trump would not only not be Biden voters’ second choice, but more likely a distant fifth or sixth, or even 22nd in states like Colorado that provide ballot access to smaller parties. In the short run, it would not make much of a difference in presidential races, but in the long run, it would really help to break the back of the duopoly that has led to the division and dire situation that has overtaken federal level politics in recent years.
As of right now, only Maine is going to use this system for president in 2020, and their success or failure with it will likely be a lesson to other states on how or how not to proceed. Both Alaska and Massachusetts are going to vote on whether they would like to expand their options in a similar manner. Other areas have approved or implemented it at a local level for some races, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico and several cities in the California Bay Area.