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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The Plausibility Threshold

I’m not at all opposed to the idea of allowing third party candidates into the general election presidential debates. In most cases, of course, there’s little reason to, as even the exposure and legitimization it would give to said third party candidates would almost never result in one of them becoming seriously competitive for the presidency. (Ross Perot in 1992 was legitimately competitive, so he definitely belonged in those debates. In 1996, there was no real chance for him, and being on the debate stage wouldn’t have changed that.)

A great shame of our electoral system as it currently exists is that there is no mechanism for expressing preference for a third party in a way that doesn’t result in self-sabotage. It’s a first-past-the-post plurality game, so a vote for liberal-third-party-candidate X means one less vote for less-liberal-but-actually-viable-Democrat Y. Without something like instant runoff voting, the whole discussion is more or less moot.

But let’s pretend for the sake of argument, though, that our system is set up to make it reasonable to vote for third parties, and that there ought to be a relatively low threshold for getting into these debates. Let’s say, again for the sake of argument, that instead of the current 15 percent in polls, it’s something like 5. That would have probably gotten Ralph Nader on the stage in 2000, and in this election, it would easily qualify both Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

But even granting all of this in our imaginary scenario, something still doesn’t sit right with me about it, and I think I know what it is.

To fully understand my thinking, you have to temporarily forget that the Republicans nominated a lunatic huckster this time around. Donald Trump’s presence in the equation clouds the air of gravity for the presidential debates, so it might help to replace him in your mind with someone like Mitt Romney or John McCain. So do that now. On this imaginary debate stage, with Martha Raddatz or Bob Schieffer or whoever moderating, you have some Romney-McCain type, former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton, and…Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

Since winning isn’t in the cards for Johnson or Stein, regardless of the electoral system in place, the ostensible benefits of their participation in the debates would be 1) to have someone articulate positions and concerns not expressed by the major party candidates, and 2) to lend new legitimacy to, and build up the viability of, the third parties for future elections, sending the message that, yes, candidates from these parties are and will be serious options for the presidency.

But is Gary Johnson really presidential material? Really? He seems by all accounts to be a good, principled man with good intentions, and he was a governor, but still. He doesn’t seem to have thought through all of his positions, he has trouble answering questions in succinct sentences, and he hasn’t held an office since a year before Facebook even existed. In my opinion, he doesn’t quite present the figure of a plausible president, and the irony is that he’s the closest the Libertarian Party has ever come to offering up someone who does. He’s more of a “this is the best we could do” candidate for a struggling minor party.

And even presuming the best about Jill Stein (which is a major challenge for me), despite her admirable activist background, she has never won elective office (save for a “Town Meeting Seat” in Lexington, Massachusetts), she panders to conspiracy theorists and paranoiacs, and deifies people like Julian Assange. She is definitely not a plausible president.

And that’s so dispiriting. As someone who’s worked professionally for systemic solutions that would clear the way for third party candidacies, I would love to see a more vibrant and dynamic set of views represented in these debates, but that also means I want those views articulated by credible candidates. Plausible presidents.

This year, the Republican Party has decided not to put forth a plausible candidate. In my imaginary scenario, we had a veteran officeholder of real gravitas to stand for the GOP, but in reality, we have a dangerous man-child. So it’s easier to look to the third party candidates and think, well, shit’s already crazy, why not let them in too? And I get that. But it’s also true that he could actually win, unlike the other two minor candidates, so he needs to be confronted by his billion-times-more-qualified opponent in front of the nation.

But for the third parties, in the abstract, I don’t think debate inclusion achieves what these parties hope they might, and what they really need them to achieve: to show the American public that their zone of the political spectrum can offer up real presidents too. The Libertarians are almost there with Johnson, and frankly would be there now if they’d flipped the ticket and nominated VP candidate Bill Weld instead, or recruited some titan of Silicon Valley like Meg Whitman, Larry Page, or Sheryl Sandberg. The Greens are nowhere near plausibility right now, with Nader 16 years ago being by far the closest they’d ever come to putting forth a credible would-be president. I honestly can’t think of anyone today who might jibe with their politics and be a plausible president, save for perhaps Bernie Sanders.

I want to see that debate, with three, four, or more honest-to-goodness potential presidents advocating and arguing their cases. But our electoral system makes it pointless, and the candidates we’ve gotten so far from the third parties makes it doubly so.