Partisan dynamics behind ranked choice voting

Maine voters will decide in November whether to use the alternative vote (AV) for single-winner elections. AV lets voters rank candidates. If no candidate has an outright majority, voters’ lower rankings come into play. Many now call this “single-winner ranked choice voting.” Why does AV have traction? If it wins, how long can we expect it to last?

I assume we need to examine the incentives of party factions. I assume these factions are fighting over a law-making veto point, which is identical to the office itself in a single-winner context. (You can see how I use these assumptions in a working paper on STV, which is the PR cousin of AV.)

Democrats (two factions: regular and insurgent) are the main AV supporters right now. Why? The current Republican governor won with 48 percent of votes in a three-way race. The independent candidate probably was an insurgent Democrat. The 8 percent of voters who supported him probably would have voted for the regular Democrat in his absence. Regular Democrats like AV right now because it would move insurgent Democratic ballots into their column.

Why didn’t regular Democrats like AV before now? As Marsha Mercer notes for Pew:

State legislators in Maine first introduced ranked-choice voting legislation in 2001, when the governor was an independent. They did again when the governor was a Democrat, and once more during the term of current Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

When the bills went nowhere, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting-Maine collected 73,000 signatures for the citizen ballot initiative.

Regular Democrats didn’t like AV in 2010 because the insurgent Democrat led the regular Democrat, implying regular Democratic votes would have transferred to an insurgent Democrat, thereby creating an insurgent Democratic governor.

Why didn’t regular Democrats like AV in 2006? One answer is that they had the governor they wanted, so the “transaction costs” of a referendum campaign outweighed the benefits. But that’s a lazy explanation. Another answer is that AV would have helped elect a right-of-center candidate. (I hate that word: “center.”) The lead insurgent Democrat was Barbara Merrill. She has a history of supporting corporations. So a rerun of the 2006 election under AV would have created a Republican governor.

Why didn’t regular Democrats like AV in 2002, just after the first introduction of AV legislation? Again, they had the Democrat they wanted, but that’s the lazy route. A glance at the vote totals shows the Green Party held the balance. “Ahh, the Green Party people would have ranked the Democrat second,” you say. That is not certain. The Green Party of the early 2000s had a reputation for “centrism” (that word again), meaning their votes may well have transferred to a Republican in an AV rerun of 2002. (I’ll let the Green Party explain its preferences.)

So regular Democrats like AV right now because they expect it to help them, not the insurgents. The minute AV elects an insurgent Democrat, regular Democrats will collude with Republicans to repeal AV.

Other lessons:

1) Greens are not a genuine party of the left, at least not entirely. Many once came from the pain caucus.

2) You like AV and want to keep it? Don’t run an insurgent Democrat who beats the regular Democrat in first-choice votes. (If you do, the regular will lose, their votes will transfer to the insurgent, Maine will have an insurgent Democratic governor, and the regular Democrats will be angry.)

3) Are you an insurgent Democrat? Take over the Democratic Party (becoming a regular). That way you can win with AV if the former regulars run their own candidate, win with or without AV if they do not, and scream them down if they run their own candidate without AV.

4) Are insurgent Democrats too small a group to take over the Democratic Party? Cut a deal with the Republicans to enact proportional representation, but then you owe the Republicans a legislative veto (see working paper).

A similar version of this post appeared at Fruits & Votes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *