Doesn't add up

Ranked-choice voting
By AL DIAMON  |  November 23, 2011

Ranked-choice voting "would ensure not only that the most popular candidate wins an election, but also that he or she wins by a clear majority of the voters," said Jim Brunelle, Portland Press Herald columnist, on August 13, 2004.

According to Justin Alfond, the former state director of the Maine League of Young Voters and now a Democratic state senator from Portland, in a December 18, 2006 op-ed in the Morning Sentinel, "Maine would benefit when the winner ... is supported by at least 50 percent of the voters, and [ranked-choice voting] accomplishes this."

It's not just liberals. Republican state Representative Gary Knight of Livermore Falls is quoted in the March 13, 2007 Press Herald as saying, "There are many in the state who do not understand why someone can obtain an elected position without getting a majority of the votes."

Ranked-choice "ensures . . . that the candidate that's elected always has majority support," promised the website PortlandVotes123 earlier this year.

According to the September 27 issue of the West End News, ranked-choice voting "is gaining popularity across the U.S. as more voters want to see a clear majority elect their leaders."

On November 13, a Press Herald editorial proclaimed Portland Mayor-elect Michael Brennan, who won Maine's first ranked-choice election on November 8, "will go into office next month with a majority of voters at his back."

One more quote: "Except, he won't."

That's me, right here, right now.

Contrary to all the coverage and campaign promises before and since election day, the victor didn't win over at least 50 percent of those voting. Of the 19,588 valid ballots cast in that race, Brennan received some kind of support on 8971 of them. That's less than 46 percent.

What backers of ranked-choice neglected to mention last year, when they were convincing Portland voters to approve their system, were these uncomfortable truths:

Under ranked-choice, some people's ballots count more than others.

And some don't count at all.

To be precise, 3525 of them didn't figure in the final tally. As a result, Brennan won with an official — and fictional — total of 56 percent of the vote.

Those neglected votes weren't overlooked. They weren't thrown out because somebody spoiled their ballots. And they weren't stolen away through political skullduggery.

They were cast aside because that's how ranked-choice voting works.

For those not familiar with that system, it allows voters to rank the candidates in the order of their preference. If nobody gets a majority in the initial round, the last-place finisher is eliminated and those votes are reallocated to the next choice. That process is supposed to continue until somebody reaches the 50-percent threshold.

But that threshold is a moving target.

While backers of this system claim it empowers supporters of candidates with less name recognition, money, organization, or sanity, the reality doesn't work that way. If folks with oddball tastes in potential mayors backed a fringe dweller as their first choice, but also failed to give at least one of the top two contenders a vote in the later rounds, their ballots eventually became "exhausted."

As far as the vote counters were concerned, they no longer existed.

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