Friends don’t let friends voter shame when there is ranked-choice voting

Maine voters this year will be able to use ranked-choice voting for both the presidential election and the contest for one of Maine’s seats in the U.S. Senate. Photo credit goes to David Sharp/Associated Press

The week before Election Day more often than not is a blur in my memory. Several events from over the decade or so that I’ve been involved in politics remain stuck in my mind. One such event occurred during the waning days of the 2014 midterm election in Portland, Maine. I was working for Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler as a field organizer. Badly out-spent, and hammered relentlessly by the state Democrats as a spoiler campaign, we were bleeding supporters and had little hope of winning on Election Day by the last week. Several days before Eliot Cutler had held a press conference where he told his supporters that if they didn’t think he could win then they should feel free to support someone else. We focused on keeping the morale of our few remaining supporters up and organized a number of visibility rallies around southern Maine. I organized a group of volunteers to hold signs at a busy intersection on Forest Avenue just outside of downtown Portland. I picked out a double-sided home-made sign from the trunk of my car and took up my post on one of the narrow medians, making sure that “Cutler for ME’’ was visible to drivers as they passed by. About an hour had gone by before an angry driver drove her car up onto the median several feet in front of me screaming that Eliot Cutler was a spoiler, I was going to give the election to the Republicans and that I should go to hell. I was so surprised that I nearly stepped backwards off of the median into oncoming traffic. It wasn’t the message that I found surprising — Eliot Cutler supporters had been on the receiving end of similar messages for weeks — but the lengths to which the angry driver went to deliver that message remains in my mind six years later as I sit here typing.

The spoiler message should sound familiar to anyone who has supported Independent or third party candidates. The idea that politics only ought to be contested by the two-major parties is widespread, and our first-past-the-post election system effectively guarantees that any third party or Independent candidates who do run must answer nine questions about why they have the temerity to think to run for any question they might get about their platform or policies. Maine though does have a long tradition of independent candidates. The Green Party also got its start in Maine, and many of its founders still live in the Pine Tree state. Just two years earlier in 2012 Angus King had been elected as an independent to the U.S. Senate. And at the last gubernatorial election Eliot Cutler had come within 2000 votes of beating Republican Paul LePage and becoming Maine’s third Independent governor in 2010. He ran in 2014 in hopes of repeating that success, but was not able to break through. By the time that Election Day came around, support for Eliot Cutler had dropped below the line that might have made him a spoiler as Paul LePage soundly won re-election against his Democratic challenger Mike Michaud.

Within those last weeks of the Cutler campaign however, a seed was planted that would change Maine politics. A group of Eliot Cutler supporters and progressives began to plan a referendum to bring ranked-choice voting to Maine. After my work on the Cutler campaign, the arguments for ranked-choice voting were obvious to me. I had lived them. I wanted to reform Maine politics so that candidates like Eliot Cutler could run for office without controversy and so that folks from Maine like myself could advocate for them without having angry car drivers ram their vehicles up on to medians to scream at me. I was not alone. I also hoped that ranked-choice voting might help fellow moderate Republicans — now former moderate Republican — in primaries. Many progressives from within the Democratic Party felt similarly, the Green and Libertarian parties saw ranked-choice voting as an existential necessity. They prioritized passing and defending ranked-choice voting equally with promoting their own candidates. When I started working for ranked-choice voting in the winter of 2014, it was alongside one of the most politically diverse coalitions I had seen assembled in both Maine and U.S. politics. As I continued to work for ranked-choice voting of the subsequent six years, I got to know a collection of passionate individuals with whom I had little else in common, except a passion to make politics more open, inclusive and fair.

If you’re reading this piece it is likely that you know the rest of this story. Ranked-choice voting would obtain ballot access in 2016 and be passed with historic support. Office-holders would be elected with at least majority support, Mainers would no longer have to worry about spoiler candidates, and candidates from outside the two party system could run for office without having to worry about their legitimacy to participate being challenged — or at least that was the idea. Ranked-choice voting would face an uphill battle to implementation, and Republican and Democratic opponents in the legislature managed to hack off several elections to which the reform applied. After a long and contentious legislative battle and an additional referendum in 2018 ranked-choice voting would finally replace first-past-the-post for all primaries in Maine, as well as general elections for Congress and the U.S. Senate.

One individual who I get to know well was a progressive activist named Chris Cayer. He started working for ranked-choice voting after having worked for Bernie Sanders during the primary in 2016. He would continue on to organize for ranked-choice voting during our first referendum, the subsequent legislative fight, and he would work along me as the Statewide Field Co-Director during our second referendum in 2018, as I worked as the campaign’s Compliance Director. As I sat in our warm office through the depths of a particularly cold Maine winter, counting and filing, Chris led our field staff and a team of enthusiastic volunteers from around the state. Chris and the rest of our field staff worked themselves to the bone during that campaign, collecting over 80,000 signatures in under 90 days. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

If it seems odd to you that I’m emphasizing how hard one particular individual worked to pass ranked-choice voting, it’s in part because Chris did not write any of this himself. And maybe he was right for not doing so, passing and defending ranked-choice voting was a team effort and there are plenty of heroes amongst both the staff and the volunteers who remain unsung. I am also writing this in part however because Chris put in this work so that he could work for candidates that he believes in. He is now the Campaign Manager for Lisa Savage, the Green Party candidate who is running against Republican Senator Susan Collins and her Democratic Challenge, Speaker Sara Gideon (no need to waste anything more than what is contained between these two parentheses on Max Linn). Chris finally has the chance to campaign for a non-two party candidate under a fair system.

Now Lisa Savage is not my cup of tea (nor for that matter is Sara Gideon or Susan Collins, anymore at least), ranked-choice voting and election reform may in fact be the only issues which her platform and I have in common. But she deserves a chance to run her campaign under ranked choice voting without having to justify her legitimacy. Chris and the Green Party certainly worked as hard as anyone else to pass and defend ranked-choice voting; it’s only fair that they get a chance to enjoy the system’s benefits. I am disgusted by how her candidacy has been treated during the final weeks of this election. Recently Chris published a piece in the Portland Phoenix in which he was forced to defend why Lisa Savage is in the race, and explain for ranked-choice voting works yet again after the Portland Phoenix told its readers that ranking Lisa Savage first would help Susan Collins. Chris did a fantastic job debunking the Portland Phoenix on that last claim, so just go read his piece if it isn’t obvious to you why that claim is wrong. Lisa Savage was also shut out of the last debate between Collins and Gideon, even after she has received praise for her constructive contributions during previous debates. As I understand it, the Lisa Savage campaign has launched a legal challenge against the sponsors of that debate, rightly claiming that it qualified as an in-kind contribution to Sara Gideon and Susan Collins.

Chris, myself, the rest of the ranked-choice voting team, and thousands of volunteers worked way too long and way too hard for me to let this go without comment. I worked to pass ranked-choice voting so that candidates like Lisa Savage and activists like Chris would not have to constantly respond to this type of commentary. And so that Maine folks who are afraid of spoiler candidates wouldn’t have to drive up on medians to yell at Maine folks like me who aren’t. There is never any strategic advantage in shaming third-party or Independent candidates or voters under ranked-choice voting. Ranked choice voting is simple, fair, and easy to use. All that you need to do is rank candidates in the order of your preference. That’s it. Those rankings are used to determine the consensus winner. By all means vote for whomever you like in the upcoming contest, but under ranked-choice voting there is no such thing as spoiler candidates. Any and all candidates can compete without fearing that their participation will make them a spoiler. So stop calling on candidates to drop out, even the Max Linns of the world deserve a chance to compete in a democracy. And stop shaming voters into ranking someone who they don’t like first. Take it from someone who has worked for the better part of the last decade to make Maine elections more fair and do away with the spoiler candidates. Vote shaming is wrong, mean, and unnecessary, and there is no excuse for it under ranked-choice voting.

Author’s note: Please note that the article below represents nothing more than my own personal observations and opinions, and should NOT be construed as an official comment on behalf of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting or any other organization with which I am or have been affiliated.

Writer on international politics. Occasional political consultant. Travel, history, and food. Misc and random pieces filed here. Twitter: @AdamMPontius