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


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