How a minority steals the show



It may be a bad year for blueberries, but it is an excellent one for political candidates. A gubernatorial election is looming in 2018, and both of Maine’s congressional seats are up at the same time. The entire legislature will turn over that November as well. Candidates? Yeah, we’ve got candidates.

It is lovely that so many people are willing to offer themselves up to run for office. It’s fun, eye-opening, world-changing. It’s also grueling, expensive and potentially devastating. A wealth of candidate choices is a good thing, but that richness of candidates presents two problems.

First, the parties have denied independent voters a chance to participate in primary elections unless they are willing to compromise their principles and join a party against their wishes. Once upon a time, when most people were enrolled in a party, that may have made sense. No longer.

More than a third of Maine registered voters are unenrolled (36 percent). Just under 27 percent are Republicans, 32 percent are Democrats, 4.2 percent are Greens and a teaspoon (0.5 percent) are Libertarians, newly qualified as a party. Even assuming a 40 percent party turnout, almost double that for the parties in 2014, this means that Republican primary elections are decided by 11 percent of registered voters, Democrat primaries by 13 percent. Using actual turnout numbers, it is even lower. Much lower.

Primaries being creatures of the most committed or devout or extreme members of the parties, the outcome increasingly yields general election nominees who represent the current fashion in party ideology. Thus, we end up with two candidates with limited appeal to the rest of us, yet we must choose between them. Yuck.

Witness the rumbling about whether Susan Collins can win a gubernatorial primary should she decide to run. Susan Collins! Would Republicans rather lose a general election than support a hugely popular candidate in the primary who is not an extreme party ideologue? Quite possibly.

Mind you, there have been repeated efforts to change this through bills that would allow unenrolled voters to participate in primary elections. The vast majority of legislators being enrolled in parties, those bills were at the mercy of legislators who like things just the way they are, thank you very much. Open primaries will become law when you-know-where freezes over or voters pass a referendum to introduce them.

Problem No. 2: Maine has a penchant for crowded races. There has been just one two-way race for governor since 1970. Occasionally, there is a dominant candidate who musters a majority vote despite multiple candidates, like popular incumbent Angus King, who won better than 58 percent of the vote in Maine’s first five-way governor’s race in 1998.

More often, a small-ish fraction of the vote is enough to win. In King’s first race in 1994, he won with 35 percent of the vote, the lowest winning percentage in Maine history. But that was against a field of giants, including former Gov. Joe Brennan and Sen. Collins. Since then, gubernatorial winners have won with percentages from the high 30s (James Longley ’74, John McKernan ’86, John Baldacci ’06, Paul LePage ’10) to the high 40s (Baldacci ’02, LePage ’14).

These plurality wins leave governors without a solid foundation for governing. Some make the most of it (King’s big win in ’98, LePage’s big gain in ’14) but others do not gain traction and sink beneath the waters of Maine political history.

On this issue, voters decided to take matters into their own hands. Last fall, they passed a referendum approving ranked-choice voting (RCV), a system through which an election is not conclusive until one candidate gets to a 50 percent majority. The Maine Supreme Court ruled the measure unconstitutional, because the state constitution allows for plurality winners.

That left the Legislature two options: amend the constitution or repeal the new law. They also could implement RCV for federal elections while they figure out what to do with the rest of it. What they have decided to do is nothing. They adjourned (finally) without taking action, other than to kill a repeal bill, which means that RCV is alive, if not well, and is the law of the land for the time being.

There is plenty of legislative palaver about the will of the people, the sacred referendum process and blah blah blah, yet the referendum that passed with the widest majority in Maine history, albeit just 52 percent, has been left to languish. The constitutional amendment process is arduous, for sure, but if the Legislature has any respect for the “will of the people,” it will initiate the process to make RCV constitutional.

So far, the only candidate in the gubernatorial or congressional races who could win it walking away is 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree. Other than that, we might be looking at sparsely supported winners whom most of us did not favor.

The election is still 15 months away. So do not think that we know the entire field for any of these races yet. It will grow ever so much more entertaining in the next few months. Anyone who wants in had best be in by November. Then we will have plenty to chew on over the winter.

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