Boston University

Failure to Fix Electoral Shortcomings Risk Democratic Erosion by Lukas McMahon @BostonUniversity

Untitled by Arnaud Jaegers (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license.

Competitive elections are the bedrock of democracy, but America’s elections are being kept as uncompetitive as possible by party elites.

Joseph Schumpeter defined democracy by its “means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” This means that any attempt to restrict electoral competition is an attempt to erode democracy. Schumpeter acknowledged in his definition that it “does not exclude the cases that are strikingly analogous to the economic phenomena we label ‘unfair’ or ‘fraudulent’ competition or restraint of competition.” (Schumpeter) This is necessary because a completely free, fair, incorruptible election is unrealistic — but the closer an electoral process is to the ideal, the better.

Maine has a democratically elected government, but its elections are far from perfect. Like the vast majority of the United States, its state elections flop between two parties and rely on a first-past-the-post voting system where the winner takes all. In 2014, Maine re-elected Paul LePage as governor, but with less than 50 percent of the vote. LePage was elected in 2010 as well, but with less than 40 percent of the vote. He was able to win because of spoiler candidates: popular third-party options that split the opposition vote.

This is a problem because it effectively excused LePage from any electoral accountability. His gubernatorial term was riddled with scandals including intentional gridlock of the legislature, advocacy for racial profiling, temper tantrums, death threats to political opponents and journalists, and endless racially insensitive comments. Members from his own party even called his mental health into question. In the 2014 election, the majority of the state voted to oust him, but voters were split between an Independent and a Democrat.

In 2016, Maine voters approved a referendum that would institute ranked-choice (instant-runoff) voting — a system that eliminates the spoiler candidate problem and elects the candidate who appeals to the widest range of people, not just the largest, most passionate group. This system works well in some of Maine’s cities and in countries like Ireland, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Australia, and others.

Unfortunately, Maine’s constitution conflicts with the system because it demands a “plurality of all the votes counted,” and instant runoff discounts and reallocates (if possible) the votes for the least-popular candidate until only one candidate remains. The state judiciary recommended that the constitution’s wording be changed to allow the referendum, but the proposal was derailed by Republicans in the legislature.

Republicans in Maine oppose the change because they benefit from limited voter choice and increasing polarization. Most of Maine’s voters are centrists and don’t fully support either major party, but there are more passionate partisan conservatives than passionate partisan liberals. Constituents know that if they vote for an independent candidate, Democrats will take control; a disaster in the eyes of a polarized electorate. As a result, voters tow the party line and keep Republicans in power, even if the candidates are terrible — like in the case of LePage.

Failure to amend this issue with the state’s electoral practices is enables backsliding by reducing voter choice and electoral competition. If Maine’s voters can’t overturn the legislature’s decision with a popular veto in 2018, the state will continue to suffer from a minimally democratic duopoly.


Schumpeter, Joseph. 1943. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers. pp. 271


1 Comment

  1. Jonathan Silin

    December 7, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    As a lifelong Mainer, I think your article does a good service shedding light on the issue of ranked-choice voting in the state. I was nevertheless struck by some inconsistencies in your argument. In the beginning of your post, you lament the two-party Democratic-Republican status quo, but go on to call third-party candidates in Maine “spoiler candidates”. Which do you prefer? Furthermore, your point about third-party Independents is not entirely true. In the 2010 gubernatorial election, runner-up Eliot Cutler (Independent) received 36 percent of the vote compared to Libby Mitchell (Democrat, 19 percent). Clearly, voters preferred Cutler to the weak Democratic candidate, making him more than a fringe spoiler. You also describe voters in Maine as part of a “polarized electorate”. While certainly polarization is an issue currently affecting all of US politics, it is important to note that Maine actually leads the pack when it comes to bi-partisanship. Angus King is one of just two Independents in the Senate and Republican Susan Collins has been ranked the most bi-partisan senator in Congress by the Luger Center. Those concerns aside, I think that your analysis of the state’s failure to formally adopt the ranked-choice voting measure speaks to a greater and dangerous trend among Maine lawmakers. Over the course of the last twenty years, state legislators have either repealed, or revised beyond recognition, more than a dozen ballot measures that have been approved by voters. One recent example is LePage’s veto of legalized recreational marijuana this November, despite being passed by voters. This trend presents a dangerous conundrum as it runs inherently counter to Dahl’s definition of “representative democracy”. Concerned voters and legislators need to do more the overhaul this suspect vetoes.

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