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.

In case of tie

What if an election is tied? Apparently it is not that unusual, at least in contests with relatively small electorates. FiveThirtyEight tells of some recent US cases. It also cites a study by Casey B. Mulligan and Charles G. Hunter that says:

between 1898 and 1992 there were no tied elections for [US] federal office and only one (New York’s 36th District in 1910) that was decided by one vote. Only twice has a general election for a state legislative seat resulted in a tie: a Rhode Island state Senate race in 1978 and a 1980 New Mexico state House race. The former was decided by a special election, the latter by a coin flip.

I understand by way of Yusaku Horiuchi that ties for the last seat are fairly common in Japanese municipal elections, where SNTV is used.

What about other countries that readers may have familiarity with? And do most jurisdictions have clear rules of what to do in even of a tie? The FiveThirtyEight post refers to some cases where there were no such rules, and the council or other body had to make up a procedure.

Time from last votes cast to official results?

[It took me a few days to notice that the subject line did not say what I meant it to say. Fixed now.]

I wonder if my readers can enlighten me on what the norm is for the time between the close of polls and the release of full preliminary official results. I am particularly curious about developing countries and new democracies, and especially those with large and difficult territorial expanse.

I ask because the long gap in Indonesia–apparently it will be about two weeks before official results are announced–is surely a contributing factor in the bubbling crisis over dual claims of victory in the 9 July presidential election. The “quick counts” (samplings of polling-place counts) point to a victory by Joko Widodo (Jokowi)–or at least the credible ones do.

Even for a country as vast as Indonesia, two weeks seems like an unnecessarily long time for a result in the current age, especially when there is only one office on the ballot. I can understand the long delay in a place of ongoing conflict and severe underdevelopment of infrastructure, such as Afghanistan, which had its presidential runoff on 14 June but has no full results yet. And I further understand that systems of paper ballots take longer than electronic voting, such as India and Brazil. But Colombia produces same-evening results on a paper-ballot system with rugged terrain (even if mostly mainland, unlike Indonesia) and with significant conflict zones. It seems Indonesia could do better–and, to mitigate crises over conflicting claims–needs to do better.

But what is the norm?

Elections of late May, 2014

The next few days have a lot of elections!

The European Parliament elections have been ongoing and conclude Sunday, which is also the day for the election of:

President of Colombia (first round)
President of Ukraine (first round)
Parliament of Belgium
President of Lithuania (second round)

Then we have the two-day election of the president of Egypt. (I could have said the ratification of the coup led by Abdel Fatah el-Sisi).

In the Colombian election, this will be the second time an incumbent is seeking reelection, given that the no-reelection clause was only lifted during the first term of Alvaro Uribe, who won a second consecutive term in 2006. Of particular interest in this election is that it pits incumbent Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s preferred successor in 2010, against a new candidate aligned with Uribe (as well as other candidates). The two had a falling out, mainly over policy towards the insurgency. But the Partido de la U, originally founded by and in support of Uribe, remains the party of the incumbent.

The Ukrainian election represents the attempt to return to electoral legitimacy following the ouster in February of Viktor Yanukovych in the popular uprising. One of the biggest questions in this election is whether it can be effectively conducted in parts of the southeast where separatist insurgents are threatening government control.

Belgium’s federal election is concurrent with the regional and European elections, which I believe is a very rare combination.

How many losers do you need?

For a project I am currently working on, regarding district-level vote fragmentation, I am toting up the number of losing parties (with any vote share) in electoral districts in various countries.

Here are a few cases that I have completed. This first list of countries gives the number of losing parties, averaging across districts and (usually) more than one election per country.

Albania, 36.2
Australia, 2.5
Barbados, 1.4
Canada, 4.2
Czech Republic, 15.5
Israel, 11.6
New Zealand, 2.3
Spain, 14.7
UK, 4.6

The figure for New Zealand refers to several pre-MMP elections.

This is a small set of countries, and I am currently expanding it. But what really jumps out here is how many partisan choices Albanian voters have. This refers to the 2009 and 2013 pure-PR elections only. The mean district in these Albanian elections has a magnitude of 12, a mean number of winning parties of only 3… and thirty-six losing parties!

Some of the other PR cases also have a lot of losers, but none like Albania.

It is interesting to see how many losing parties are typical of the two big FPTP countries, Canada and UK, with both averaging more than four per district.

Another interesting summary statistic is what vote share the losing parties average. In Albania it is 1.05% per party. That sums to a LOT of wasted votes! Spain, too, has a high average vote share for losing parties for a PR system, at 2.8%. In the Czech Republic it is 1.2% and in Israel (with nationwide PR, rather than districted) it is only 0.4%.

Thus we should also consider the average percentage of the first losing party in a district:

Albania, 4.6
Australia, 35.8
Barbados, 39.1
Canada, 28.5
Czech Republic, 4.7
Israel, 0.94
New Zealand, 32.9
Spain, 6.4
UK, 28.6

Of course, in FPTP systems the average shares for first losers and thus for all losers are especially high, but the larger losing parties in any given district tend to win some seats elsewhere.* In the PR cases, a lot of these losers are not winning anywhere (or might win in just one to two high-magnitude districts); they are just small parties that have no chance at all. I wonder what it is about Albanian party law, or other features of the country’s politics, that contribute to so many micro-parties running.

* The third party (second loser) in the FPTP cases of Canada, UK and (formerly) New Zealand averages 14-15%. The average winner in Canada and the UK, by the way, is at almost precisely 50% (in NZ it was 52.8%).

Most of the raw data from which I calculated the above numbers come from the Constituency Level Electoral Archive, although I am augmenting it from various other sources. The list of countries shown here is the subset on which I am currently working: parliamentary democracies with “simple” electoral systems by Taagepera (2007) criteria, meaning no second round or upper tier. Thanks to Cory Belden for her research assistance; some day she will get a much better acknowledgement than one on a blog post…