This Fucking Guy: How Our Shitty Electoral System Let a Monster Run Maine

1024px-LepageumaineEven in the Age of Trump, one political figure stands out above all others as the lowest of the low, the king of the boors, the bastard of disaster, Paul LePage, second-term governor of the great state of Maine, my home.

In just the last 72 hours, he has left a threatening voicemail with a state legislator, promising to “come after you” and calling him a “cocksucker.” He also demanded the legislator “prove I’m a racist,” which LePage quickly did all by himself:

When you go to war, if you know the enemy, the enemy dresses in red and you dress in blue, you shoot at red, don’t you? You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy. And the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority right now coming in are people of color or people of Hispanic origin. I can’t help that. I just can’t help it. Those are the facts.

These are just the latest two examples of what kind of an abysmal pit of a human being he is.

Believe me when I tell you that Maine is a good state. The people are by and large good-hearted, decent, and tolerant. There is a generosity of spirit within the state’s culture that I’ve not seen the likes of in any other place I’ve lived. Now, of course, Maine is populated by humans, and that means a large number of them will be assholes, ignoramuses, vultures, bullies, cowards, and gross opportunists. Such is homo sapiens in all its wonder.

But Paul LePage does not represent the Maine I know. His governorship is not a true reflection of the politics, nor even the simplest notions of decency, of Mainers as a whole. And yet somehow he has been elected the state’s leader, twice. How could this be?

You might already know that in both of LePage’s gubernatorial races, he faced not one but two opponents: A Democratic nominee, and an independent, Eliot Cutler. Now, Maine has a history of being open to independent candidacies that sets it apart from other states. Sen. Angus King is one such independent, and was previously a very popular governor. It is rational for other potentially-strong independent candidates to think they have a realistic shot at being elected over the major party candidates.

You know how this ends, of course. In 2010 the vote was more or less split three ways, with LePage eking out a plurality victory with almost 38%, and the independent Cutler coming in second with 36%, and the Democrat Libby Mitchell lagging with about 19%. Fast forward to 2014 and the unthinkable was thunk all over again, but this time Cutler faltered, earning only a little over 8% of the vote, but enough to deny a victory to the Democrat, Rep. Mike Michaud, who lost with 43% to LePage’s 48%.

I say that Cutler denied a victory to Michaud because there was very little overlap in those who favored both Cutler and LePage. Had Cutler not run, Michaud would have won. In 2010, had the Democrats realized they were out of luck that year, they could have rallied behind Cutler, and kept LePage from ever having gotten near the governorship, with a guaranteed blowout victory.

So is it all Cutler’s fault? Is it Libby Mitchell’s for not facing reality in 2010? In the narrow view, yes. For the good of the state they sought to lead, they should both have examined their consciences and done what needed to be done to stop LePage from becoming governor.

But in the broad view, the fault lies not with the candidates, who rationally believe they have a shot to win and a right to run, but with the electoral system itself. Hate the game, not the player.

I’m talking of course about the first-past-the-post system used for almost every office in American politics, where the person who simply gets the most votes – not the candidate who gets a majority of votes, and that’s important – wins. Pluralities, not majorities, decide who takes power. And pluralities have a funny way of being very small and very unrepresentative of electorates as a whole.

Let’s pretend that Maine instead used a voting method that allowed voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. If voters get to indicate their second and third (and so on) choices on their ballots, non-viable candidates can be eliminated and a real consensus can emerge.

You might have heard of Ranked Choice Voting or Instant Runoff Voting (insider secret: they’re the same thing!), particularly during the 2000 election when Ralph Nader began to whittle away at Al Gore’s support. It’s actually wicked simple.

To be brief, you look at your ballot, and you mark your favorite candidate with a 1, your second-favorite with a 2, and so on. In 2010, a Mitchell voter would likely have indicated Cutler as their second choice (not all of them, of course). So when the ballots were counted and showed that Mitchell had come in third place for first-choice votes, she’d have been eliminated, and those ballots would then be allocated to Mitchell voters’ second choices. Most of those would have been for Cutler, and Cutler would have gone over the 50% mark, winning with an actual majority instead of a mere plurality.

If you have a gut reaction to this along the lines of “well that doesn’t seem fair,” let me put it this way: Is it fair that the person taking office is someone wholly rejected and disliked by two-thirds of the electorate? By counting the second-choice votes of non-viable candidates, the electorate gets the candidate who was the true consensus choice of the majority. Mitchell voters, otherwise relegated to electoral irrelevance, can now say, “If I can’t have Mitchell, I’ll take Cutler,” and actually be heard. They still count.

Now repeat this for 2014. Chances are most Cutler voters (doomed to see their candidate get crushed) would have preferred Michaud over LePage. Eliminate Cutler in the first “round,” reallocate his supporters’ second-choice votes, and you probably have Michaud eking out a majority.

Or maybe you don’t! Maybe I’m wrong about who Cutler voters would have preferred and you still get a LePage win, but at least that would reflect the actual will of the electorate. As you can imagine, though, I find that implausible, and despite LePage’s strong 48% showing in 2014, a sizable enough portion of Cutler’s slice of the electorate would have pushed Michaud over the 50% mark, needing only an additional 6 and a half percent or so.

If Florida had used such a system in 2000, it’s inconceivable that Gore would not have won the state, being the overwhelming second-choice of Nader voters, and saving us from eight years of horror. And more to the point, it would have been the fair thing to do, representing the actual majority consensus of Florida’s voters. You know, “the people.”

(Now imagine if the current presidential election were closer than it is, and it really looked like Gary Johnson or Jill Stein might tilt the race from Clinton to Trump, when you know for certain that Trump doesn’t have the support of the majority of Americans. Yeah, think about that. Think hard about it, then get a drink.)

This is so obvious to me, that it pains me that the push to get ranked choice systems in place, even experimentally, is such an uphill slog. I was in the slog, having worked for FairVote back in the aughts, which is the country’s main advocate for these kinds of reform. There is a real movement to get this adopted in Maine statewide, as it has already been working successfully in the mayoral elections for Portland, Maine since 2011.

So let me wind this down by narrowing the focus back to the Goblin King of New England. Maine is not a state of grotesque monsters, and yet because of our first-past-the-post voting system, we have one for governor, and he’s one that threatens people who get under his skin and talks about shooting down black and Hispanic people. And that’s just what he says out loud. His policies (and just as important, the policies he blocks) are as dark and soulless as his words and his heart.

That’s not Maine. That’s not us. I wish we had a voting system that allowed us to say so.

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