Much of the political turmoil surrounding us has to do with candidate elections. In order to fix what ails us, the focus should be not on who’s running but on the electoral process itself. Unfortunately, current “reform” efforts often have more to do with limiting voter access than with making voting simpler and more secure.
Among the most unsettling proposals are changes that would take election outcomes out of the hands of highly qualified and conscientious civil servants (secretaries of state, town clerks) and give them to state legislatures. Nothing could be more detrimental to the electoral process.
Headlines to the contrary, these officials have performed their jobs with distinction, operating at levels of error irrelevant to the outcome in virtually every election that has been challenged. Instead of taking the control of elections away from them, we should be considering reforms such as open primaries, ranked–choice voting and the redistricting process.
Open primaries are under active debate in Maine. One proposal suggests a single ballot with the names of all primary candidates, available to every registered voter without regard to party. That would certainly pass the fairness test but may be a bridge too far, especially for the all-powerful parties.
Another proposal would allow independent (unenrolled) voters to vote in the party primary of their choice without having to register in the party to do so. The participation of unenrolled voters, representing about one–third of the electorate, would mean candidates could not win a primary by playing to their base. It is a big step in the right direction.
Next is broadening the utilization of ranked–choice voting (RCV) to more elections. RCV is a way of making sure the ultimate winners earn their seats with a majority vote, even though some of those votes may be second choices. In races with more than two candidates, this prevents a candidate from winning with a relatively small percentage of the vote.
Former Governor Paul LePage won his first election with 38 percent of the vote and his second with 48 percent. In both cases, RCV might have yielded a different outcome. Former Governor Angus King won his first race for governor with 35.4 percent of the vote in a five-way race that included one write-in candidate whose 1.29 percent of the vote might have tipped the results to former Governor Joe Brennan. For his second term, a four-way contest, King won it by walking away with just under 59 percent of the vote.
Governor John Baldacci was also a plurality vote winner with 47 percent of the vote in 2002 and 38 percent for his re-election in 2006. This means that in the 21st century, only King and current Governor Janet Mills have won a gubernatorial seat with a majority vote.
RCV can result in a loss for the candidate who received the biggest plurality in the first round. Governor LePage reluctantly certified Democrat Jared Golden’s first-ever RCV win for a congressional seat by scrawling the words “stolen election” next to his signature. The phrase has become a loser’s battle cry.
The third electoral reform needed is in reapportionment. By law, Maine must undertake reapportionment for congressional and legislative districts every 10 years and 2021 is the year. A Legislative Apportionment Commission is appointed to ensure that state legislative districts are “formed of contiguous and compact territory and shall cross political subdivision lines the least number of times necessary to establish as nearly as practicable equally populated districts.”
The state constitution dictates the membership of the Apportionment Commission and, not unlike the current primary election system, cuts out unenrolled voters. There are 15 members, three from each major party in the House, two from each major party in the Senate, the chairs of the two major state political parties (that’s 12 members for the two major parties) and three public members, two of whom are selected by the parties; the third is selected by the other two public members.
Despite the partisan makeup of the commission, the Legislature fulfilled this responsibility for many years. In more recent times, with the commission unable to agree on a plan, it has gone to the Maine Supreme Court for a decision.
The creation of “safe” districts through gerrymandering is contrary to the constitutional specifications about “contiguous and compact territory.” What if the membership of the commission reflected the proportions of voter registration? A third of them would be unenrolled. And perhaps the apportionment process should start in the Supreme Court, not end there.
Allowing all voters to participate in primary elections, the broad use of ranked–choice voting and a nonpartisan apportionment process would go a long way toward restoring our faith in free and fair elections. Turning these processes over to highly politicized legislatures is the worst thing we could do.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.