Voter choice or partisan interest? The case of ranked-choice voting in Maine

Galvanized by the first ever ranked-choice-voting (RCV) win in a U.S. state, reformers just hours ago held a conference call to build their movement. Ranked-choice voting is a set of voting rules more kind to “outsiders” than our ubiquitous plurality system. Given the unusual strength of America’s two-party system, why do outsider-friendly electoral reforms ever win?

My answer is: a replacement institutional template, losing-party self-interest, and ruling-party disunity. In a recently published paper, I show how this logic can explain the spread of “multi-winner ranked-choice voting” (i.e., proportional representation or PR) in the first part of the 20th century. Losing parties and disgruntled ruling-party factions promote voting-system change in a bid for policy-making influence. Voting reform organizations supply the replacement template.

Does my answer also explain the RCV win in Maine? Is that enough to buy my argument? If the answers are “yes,” reformers would concentrate on jurisdictions with sizable out-parties and fractious ruling parties.

Americanist political scientists would also change the way they think about election “reform.” The dominant trend for more than a century has been to see party and reform as exclusive. Fifty years ago, we would have read about conflict between “machine politics” and “good government.” Now we read about “activists” versus “compromisers,” legacies of Progressivism, and reformer “process-obsession.” What if party itself were a critical reform ingredient? As Jessica Trounstine reminds us in her excellent book, Democratic boss Thomas Pendergast was more than happy to turn the model city charter (without PR) to his own “machine” ends in Kansas City.

Let’s see if my template-loser-faction model explains what just happened in Maine.

The template

“Maine has not elected a governor to a first term with majority support since 1966,” said Jill Ward, President of the League of Women Voters of Maine. “Ranked Choice Voting restores majority rule and puts more power in the hands of voters.” – quoted from

Efforts to enact RCV began in 2001.

The losing party

Circumstantial evidence suggests that, from 2001 until the 2014 re-election of Gov. Paul LePage (R), the Democratic Party either:

1) controlled a policy veto point via the governorship, or

2) did not expect “independent” voters’ ballot transfers under single-winner RCV to help elect its candidates.

How is 2014 different for Democratic Party expectations? If the rhetoric of the current governor is any indication, the Maine Republican Party has become more socially conservative. Perhaps it is now so socially conservative (in Democrats’ minds) that the Democratic Party thinks “independent” voters would rank its candidates over Republicans. Maybe Democrats are thinking: “If we had RCV, we wouldn’t be the losing party.”

The disgruntled, ruling-party faction

My hunch is that this is a group of fiscal conservatives, no longer at home in either state party. That doesn’t make them a disgruntled, ruling-party faction, but it might have made them willing to consider Republicans in earlier years. Consider:

  • Proponent of record for Question 5: An Act to Establish Ranked-choice Voting. Liberal on some economic issues, but supports consumption taxes and income-tax reduction.
  • Two-time independent candidate for governor. Liberal on the environment, ambiguous on economics, but not a conventional Democrat of yore. Endorsed independent candidate Angus King (over the Democrat) to replace outgoing Sen. Olympia Snowe, a famed “moderate” Republican.
  • One-time independent candidate for governor. Quits Democratic Party to run. Wanted Maine “to be the Free Enterprise State.”

Predictions and evidence

Last month I predicted that a coalition of regular Democrats and “the independents” would put RCV over the top. Republicans threw me a curve ball by endorsing RCV the very next day, but, as the proprietor of this blog has written, such endorsements can be strategic.

If I was right, Democrats and “the independents” should have voted for RCV, but the Republicans should not have.

Below I give a rough test of these hypotheses. Here are precinct-level results of the vote in favor of RCV by the vote for each major-party presidential candidate. (Vote shares are overall, not of the two-party vote.) This is preliminary. I only have data so far for 87 percent of precincts, the state has not released official results, and I have not looked at the correlation of RCV support with partisanship in other offices. I don’t yet have a way to get at behavior by “the independents.” Finally, I have not yet run an ecological inference analysis, but I plan to remedy all this later.

As you can see, Democrats seemed to like RCV, and Republicans did not, at least as revealed by presidential voting.

The role of uncertainty

Why don’t “the independents” simply join the Democratic Party if they dislike current Republican positions as much as the Democrats? This is what’s really interesting about the adoption and use of RCV. I argue that groups in reformist alliances do not plan to cooperate on all pieces of legislation. Let’s say Maine ends up with an “independent” governor or a sizable contingent of “independents” in its state legislature. I would not be surprised if we see them working with Democrats on some legislation (e.g., “social”), then with Republicans on other bills (e.g., taxes).

Why don’t Democrats foresee this possibility? Perhaps they recognize that single-winner RCV is not the same as PR. Consequently they may reason that “independents” will not become a bargaining force. Rather, “independent” ballots will bolster the position of Democrats in government.

Then why are “independents” going along with a reform that’s good for Democrats? Perhaps they disagree with Democrats on who’s likely to benefit from strategic voting. As Gary Cox reminds us, strategic voting depends in the end on voter expectations, shaped by elite messaging about precisely which party or candidate is “hopeless” under a given electoral system. The perception that RCV has made elections kinder to outsiders is important. If there really are many sincerely “independent” voters, “independent” candidates may get a toehold in government.

And that’s when things get interesting.

Partisan dynamics of support for AV

Maine voters will decide in November whether to use the alternative vote (AV) for all single-winner elections. (I’m not sure about the congressional-district Electoral College votes.) Why does AV have traction, and 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 was probably 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 — ugh, I hate that word — candidate. 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

Does AV mean higher or lower effective number of parties?

There may be a conventional wisdom among people who study comparative electoral systems that the Alternative Vote (also known as Instant Runoff or Majority Preferential) tends to suppress the effective number of parties, compared to plurality (First Past the Post, or FPTP). Or maybe it is just me, but I will admit to having such a notion. After all, Australia is a pretty strict two-party system, isn’t it?

The correct way to approach the question of whether AV means a higher or lower effective number of parties (N) than FPTP is to ask: What we should expect N to be, given the country’s seat product?

As explained by Taagepera (2007) and further elaborated and tested by Li and Shugart (2016), the seat product is a country’s mean district magnitude (M), times its assembly size (S). The Seat Product Model says that the effective number of seat-winning parties (Ns) tends to be the sixth root of this product: Ns=(MS)1/6.

The model is logical, not a mere product of empirical regression work, although regression tests confirm it almost precisely (Li and Shugart, 2016).

When all districts elect just one member, thus M=1, the Seat Product is just the assembly size, S. Hence we take the sixth root of S to get an expectation for Ns. What if we do this for Australia’s House of Representatives? We get an expectation of 2.31.

The actual Ns for Australia’s elections since 1984, the year S was increased from 125 to 148 (subsequently it has increased to 150, a minor change) is… 2.53. However, I believe that figure (I am using Gallagher’s Election Indices) treats the Coalition parties as one in elections before 2010.

In the two most recent elections, Ns has been 2.92 and 3.23. The notes to Gallagher’s Election Indices indicate that for these elections the Liberal Party, the Nationals, and the Liberal National Party of Queensland are treated as separate parties. In my opinion they should be so treated, although I suppose one could have a debate about that.

The actual mean is thus above the expectation for a hypothetical FPTP of the same size assembly. If we use the figure of 2.53, it is obviously not much higher than 2.31 (the ratio is 1.10). However, if we consider the value, at least in recent elections, to be around 3.0, it is about 1.30 times the expectation value.

Contrast this with the UK, where elections of the same period (1987-2010) have a mean Ns=2.30. This is just what we expect for FPTP, right? Not much over 2.0. Not so fast! The UK has a huge assembly, and with S=650 (aprpox., as it varies over the period), we should expect Ns=2.94. The UK actually has one of the more under-fragmented assemblies, according to the Seat Product Model, with this recent-period average being only 78% of expectation.

So how about Canada, where AV is one of the potential reforms being considered? Over a similar period (1984-2011) we get Ns=2.63. With S around 300 during this time, we should get Ns=2.59. So Canada pretty much nails the expectation of the model.

So, should we expect Ns to go down if Canada were to adopt AV, as (what I characterized as) the conventional wisdom would have it? Or should we expect it to go up?

I would not be inclined to say ‘down’. I will just leave it at that for now.

Against ranked-ballot systems: But why?

No, I am not against them, but Joseph Heath, writing at In Due Course, is a skeptic.

Heath’s main concern with “instant runoff” (IRV), also know as the alternative vote (AV), is that it does not guarantee a Condorcet winner.* This is true, and well known. It is one of several methods that will guard against a Condorcet loser, however. Of course, if you want to guarantee a Condorcet winner when there are three or more candidates, you might still use ranked-choice ballots (but a different counting rule), but that’s not what motivates me to write this response.

The motivation is the following passage, which comes after a stylized illustration based on the recent three-way race for Toronto mayor, after which Heath suggests that under his hypothetical distribution of preferences among the voters, Ford supporters would have been better off strategically giving first preferences to a different candidate. He then says:

So it is absolutely and categorically false to say that IRV eliminates the incentive for strategic voting. All it does is invert it. (This is something that everyone should know from history as well – in 2002 too many French voters failed to vote strategically in the Presidential election — which uses a run-off system — leading the Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin to be eliminated in the first round, forcing them all to vote for Jacques Chirac to keep the far right out of power.)

That’s some sleight-of-terminology there. Yes, France elects its president with “a runoff system”, but not with an instant runoff. It is a top-two runoff on a later date, and indeed, coordination failure on the left in 2002 prevented Jospin from beating LePen for the second slot. However, can anyone seriously doubt that with IRV/AV, Jospin would have been one of the last two standing when things reached the final count? I don’t think so.

I do not know who the Condorcet winner was in France in 2002. It might have been Jospin, and had approximately the same distribution of first preferences been rendered under an IRV system, then Jospin would have won–if he rather than Chirac was the Condorcet choice.

I agree with what I take to be Heath’s broader point that proponents of IRV oversell it at times. However, if one prefers a system that enhances the electability of a Condorcet winner, it is a pretty good choice. If one wants to guarantee a Condorcet winner, well, that is a different conversation, and one Heath does not enter in to. Most of the rules that would do so have their own pathologies. For single-winner contests, I’m still sticking with AV/IRV as being a good enough solution.

It is also possible that Heath would be happier with the Coomb’s Rule variant of AV.


* A Condorcet winner is a candidate who would beat each of the others in a pairwise competition.

Imagining the 2015 UK general election under AV

What would the last UK election have been like be under the alternative vote (AV)? I was discussing this question with Henry Schlechta, and I thank him for bringing it up.

The 2011 attempt at electoral reform failed, but let’s imagine it had somehow succeeded, say, for example, if the referendum had turned the other way, or if the Liberal Democrats had succeeded in getting it passed without a referendum.

In the referendum, one of the challenges the Liberal Democrats faced was that they were seen as by far the main beneficiaries of the proposed change. Conservatives and Labour alike would have been expected to rank the Lib-Dems second, and in all projections of previous elections under AV, the Lib-Dems were estimated to gain about two-dozen seats on average, even becoming the official opposition had AV been in place in 1997.

However, according to the Electoral Reform Society’s report on the 2015 general election (which presents several projections of the results of the election had it been held under a different electoral system)[1], the 2015 general election would have hardly been any different under AV:

Party Seats under AV Difference from actual seats
Conservative 337 +6
Labour 227 -5
SNP 54 -2
Liberal Democrats 9 +1
Plaid Cymru 3
Greens 1

In fact, not only would the Liberal Democrats have received just one seat more than under First Past the Post, the main beneficiaries apparently would have been the Conservatives, who were hell-bent on preventing the system’s adoption in the 2011 referendum campaign.

It would seem that the Lib-Dems lost so much support in 2015 that there would have been far fewer seats where they were among the top two parties in first-preference terms, thus being able to survive exclusion until the final round where they could benefit from Labour or Conservative lower preferences. Perhaps they also lost so much credibility that they would get fewer lower-preferences than in previous elections (I couldn’t find the full poll results on which the projection is based – I would be very grateful if someone else were able to share them with us).

Of course, this is just a projection, with some serious limitations. Firstly, it appears votes under FPTP were simply translated into first preferences. In reality, many voters who voted strategically under FPTP would use the opportunity given to them by AV to rank their real first preference first. Secondly, AV might incentivise parties to pursue different campaign strategies, and maybe even have an impact on manifestoes and candidates, as the need to get a majority of the vote would change what it takes to be elected in many constituencies.

In any case, there would probably have been more 1st-preference votes for smaller parties, including UKIP and the Lib-Dems. But the Lib-Dems might also have benefitted from second preferences from parties such as the Greens, who would usually get eliminated from the count first. Might this have evened out the effect of the Lib-Dem collapse in some constituencies and allowing the Lib-Dems to beat the Conservatives to the final ‘round’ on preferences, by getting second preferences from parties smaller than UKIP?

What would have become of the Conservatives’ campaign warning against a minority Labour government dependent on SNP support? Could it easily have become a campaign for voters’ second preferences?

In Scotland, would Unionist parties have recommended preferences to each other to block the SNP?

These are just a few of the questions that should be considered when constructing this alternate history, and I’d love to hear our readers’ thoughts on these as well as other potential changes to the campaign and results if the UK had adopted AV in 2011 (or any other country – there’s at least one that has been discussed here where the question is becoming increasingly relevant).

[1] Based on second- and third-preference polls. The methodology is stated in appendix of the report (page 33).

Party-preferential voting

I had missed most of the following discussion earlier, and as it occurred in a thread on Lower Saxony, it could easily have been missed by others as well.

I am going to reproduce two comments that describe interesting ideas for coping with thresholds.


there’s no reason you couldn’t make thresholds less discontinuous, by combining them with preferential votes.

The mechanics would be a tweaked STV, with the following differences:

1. Because of large district magnitude, a full preferential vote for all candidates would be impractical. Instead voters would list parties in order of preference, with the intraparty order being fixed as in List-PR.

2. To effect a threshold of T seats, a party would not be awarded its first seat until it has accumulated T quotas.


Vasi, that sounds essentially like the NSW Legislative Council electoral system.

The election is by STV, with 21 vacancies at an election. One has the option of either voting below the line, by ranking at least 15 candidates, or voting above the line, by voting for one or more party tickets. Unlike federal Senate elections, voting for a party’s ticket does not result in a vote for a preset preference ranking of every candidate; instead, it only ranks the candidates of that party, in the order they appear on the ballot paper. Voters have the option of marking multiple parties above the line, unlike federal Senate elections. So, for instance, the Labor how-to-vote cards in the last election suggested that their supporters vote 1 Labor, 2 Greens above the line. That means they essentially ranked every Labor candidate, followed by every Greens candidate, and if all of them are elected or excluded, their ballot is exhausted.

The Australian group voting ticket essentially operates like closed-list PR, with the exception of in very large elections. The NSW Legislative Council used to use the same ticket style system that the federal Senate uses, but after the 1999 election resulted in a ballot paper the size of a tablecloth (almost 1 sq. m), and a candidate from the “Outdoor Recreation Party” got elected with 8,000 first preference votes (something like 5% of a quota), they changed the group-ticket system to the single party ticket system now in place.

Stephane Dion, the former Leader of the Official Opposition in Canada, also is advocating a version of party-preferential voting. though in ridings which would be only 3-5 seats (1 seat by AV in the territories). In a 4-seat riding, the threshold would be 25% + 1 vote. If all remaining parties are above the threshold, seats are awarded to them by largest remainder (I believe). If there are any parties remaining below the threshold, the party with the least votes is eliminated and their supporters votes transferred to their highest remaining preference. His system is OLPR, with each voter able to cast a preference vote for one candidate of his first-preference party.

I think the most proportional system possible would be party-preferential with a low threshold and a large district magnitude (the most proportional would obviously be a single national district). You could either exclude parties one-by-one (hopefully with block exclusions) until every party remaining was above the threshold, then distribute seats. Otherwise you could simply exclude all parties below the threshold and distribute their voters’ preferences to remaining parties. It avoids the huge numbers of voters wasting their votes by being below the thresold; for instance, even with a relatively low threshold of 3%, 19% of the valid votes in the May 2012 Greek election were cast for parties below the threshold. In this system, the only voters who do not have either a first preference or a transfer vote elect an MP are those who deliberately choose not to rank any parties that make it into parliament.

I also think a novel way to build a stronger government while remaining representative of votes would be to use preferential ballots, but with multiple thresholds. In a 120 seat legislature, 60 seats could be awarded to those parties above 2%, with voters below the threshold transferring to their highest placed remaining party. Then a further 30 seats could be given to those parties above 5% (including transferred votes), then a further 20 seats to those parties above 10%, and then the final 10 seats to the party which wins a majority by transfers. This means that even voters who vote below the threshold are represented, and parties with a decent amount of support have representatives in parliament, just not proportionally to their first-preference votes. You also get larger parties at the top, making a stable government more likely, but unlike supplemental member, or the Italian/Greek plurality-winner top up system, the larger bloc is distributed based on all voters’ preferences, retaining a much larger degree of proportionality than other semi-proportional systems.

I am not necessarily endorsing this concept, although I do find it very interesting. I would be interested in further discussion.

The thread has a lot of other interesting comments on the relationship of thresholds to democratic theory (particularly the last several comments posted as of 4 February). I re-posted the two comments above simply because they refer to proposals for an alternative way of coping with thresholds in electoral-system design.

(I did note the Dion proposal before.)