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A revolution in American Democracy

“As Maine goes, so goes the nation” was a popular expression paying homage to the state’s political instincts from roughly the Civil War to the dawn of the New Deal era. Maine voters reliably backed 15 of 18 winners in presidential contests between 1860 and 1928.

The nation again looks to Maine as the state will officially become the first to allow the use of ranked-choice balloting in the 2020 presidential general election and join the growing chorus of those singing from the ranked-choice hymnal. According to the nonprofit Fair Vote, there are now over a dozen cities as diverse as Santa Fe, NM; Oakland, CA; and Minneapolis, MN currently using ranked choice for municipal races.

My state of Mississippi has been using run-off balloting for overseas voters since 2014. Voters in these places can rank their preferred candidates at the polls. In any race involving three or more choices running for a single seat or position, voters rank the candidates from most to least favored. When no candidate receives a majority vote based on the initial count, candidates at the bottom of the heap are eliminated one-by-one and votes are reallocated based on who was ranked as their second choice, third choice, and so on until a candidate has won a majority.

There are several reasons why ranked-choice presents exciting opportunities for anyone perturbed by the current state of affairs in our democratic process. Voters may be focused on different issues within their states, but everywhere voters appalled by the coarsening political discourse. Ranked-choice has the potential to improve the building of consensus and the revival of civility in American politics.

First, it has the potential to encourage more substantive, broad-based campaigns aimed at reaching as many segments of the electorate as possible. Rather than conceivably securing victory without a majority of votes using a “base” strategy to produce a winning plurality, candidates would be encouraged to broaden their scope as voters will have the opportunity to rank their choices from top to bottom. A candidate with a message seen as isolating or hostile to portions of the electorate will inevitably struggle to grow a coalition, while candidates with a “big tent” approach may be rewarded.

Second, Governor Mills noted in a statement, “My experience with ranked-choice voting is that it gives voters a greater voice and it encourages civility among campaigns and candidates at a time when such civility is sorely needed.” I agree with Mills that ranked-choice could be a game-changer in this manner, and could also serve as a means of bringing back voters who have become disenfranchised with our current state of non-stop political warfare.

Thinking about the political climate I observe daily here in Mississippi, I know there is a desire among the electorate to bolster civility and cooperation in politics. Each quarter we conduct a unique survey of public opinion among voters called the Millsaps College/Chism Strategies State of the State Survey. In the heat of the midterm election cycle we asked voters in October 2018 to tell us about their concerns and perceptions of political discourse in the state and nation. We found that 64 percent of Mississippi voters want their political leaders to compromise and get things done, even if it is at the expense of sticking to their beliefs and even if little gets done. Likewise, 62 percent of voters said that the level of civility in national politics is getting worse.

Although our political party system has its share of detractors, it remains the fundamental point of organizing our nation’s electoral and governing structure, provides for stability, and serves as a means of simplifying the electoral system for citizens. Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, our political parties can still thrive but also compete with third party candidates in a system that enhances voter choice while allowing our political traditions to flourish.

As a scholar who also has spent time as a practitioner of politics, I am excited about the opportunities that lie ahead for Maine voters as they prepare to partake in ranked-choice balloting in the 2020 presidential election. And it is promising that the rest of the nation can watch and learn from seeing the ranked-choice revolution in action next year.

Dr. Nathan Shrader will be presenting on rank choice voting at the College Convention hosted by New England College on Jan. 5-9, 2020, in Manchester. He is the chair of the Department of Government and Politics and director of American Studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.