Guest column: Ignoring the role of ranked-choice voting cost Gideon Senate seat
John Rensenbrink :: Press Herald
Why did Susan Collins win? Just as relevant, why did Sarah Gideon lose? I offer these observations.
Joshua Rogers made a good argument in The Times Record Opinion page on Nov. 11 ( “The incumbency factor in Maine” ). He said it was Collins’ incumbency that made the difference. I further note that Collins was used to winning by a big majority. She and her people from the get-go were “thinking majority.” Why is this important?
They faced an obstacle: ranked-choice voting (RCV). It brought into play new rules. The winning candidate must get a majority of the total vote. Winning just a plurality would not suffice. Republican Bruce Poliquin’s 2018 defeat by Democrat Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District was a stunning message. In addition to the provision of “must-have majority,” RCV also provides that each voter has the opportunity to vote their preferences among all the candidates, not just the top two. The preferences on the ballots of third-place finisher Tiffany Bond went to Golden, boosting him to majority of the total vote, defeating the incumbent Poliquin.
This message was all the more reason for Collins and her people to push extra hard to win that majority in the general election, thus bypassing resort to second place preferences. They pushed hard and won.
Almost miraculously for them, the press treated the race as just a shoot out between Collins and Gideon, ignoring RCV. It seems the media were still for the most part in the grip of “thinking plurality,” not “thinking majority.”
Gideon got caught up in thinking the same way. This became especially clear when she joined Collins in the “secret” exclusive debate put on by Portland’s WMTW-Channel 8 on the Friday before the coming election Nov. 3. She could have and should have insisted that the two Independents be included, Lisa Savage and Max Linn.
This was to her interest because the second place preferences on their ballots were a factor in a tight race. Seating Savage was not only the right thing to do, but the preferences on those ballots, especially those of Savage, could be decisive. By denying their presence in the debate, the TV station was going against the intent and provisions of the RCV law. By agreeing to exclude the independents together with their ballot preferences both Collins and Gideon bowed to this palpable irregularity. They all ignored or bypassed two closely related provisions of the relevant RCV law: that the winning candidate must reach a majority and that the second place preferences of the ballots of Savage and Linn are potential votes. It was premature to assume four days before the election that the second place preferences on their ballots were irrelevant.
If Lisa Savage had been given her rightful standing in the debate, she could have and probably would have focused hard on the ballot preferences and on the majority principles of RCV. She would have four days of strong campaigning to turn heads and increase both her ballot totals and the second place preferences for Gideon on those ballots. This may have given Gideon the boost to majority and victory. Putting such speculation aside, it is clear that Gideon missed her chance. She and her people were immersed in first-past-the post, plurality thinking. Collins got the benefit.
Lisa Savage and her team protested her exclusion. In strong numbers, they petitioned the TV station. It was rejected. They might have, could have, and should have taken a next step. They should have brought into focus the material relevance of RCV, the law under which the entire election was conducted.
Readers may ask what was my role, noting my deep and direct involvement in the Green Party from its beginning. I was absent. In mid-September I was struck by a virulent tick, hospitalized for three weeks followed by five weeks REHAB to launch my recuperation. I missed the election, but have thought about it a lot.
John Rensenbrink is a professor emeritus at Bowdoin College and is co-founder of the U.S. and Maine Green parties.
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