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RCV and Me: Applying Consistent Life Principles to Ranked Choice Voting

by Julia Smucker

When I moved to Maine three years ago, I had no idea it would become the first US state to implement Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in a national election. Since then, I have seen the lengthy effort to make such a process a reality play out. Entrenching RCV in law involved significant legal back-and-forth and two ballot referendums, the second of which was the result of a people’s veto to make the state legislature apply the law that voters had already approved, and which I voted for in the 2018 primary — in which I, as an independent, couldn’t vote for any candidates. The legal battle continued far longer than many expected, but I was ultimately able to count myself lucky enough to be living in the only state that used RCV in the 2020 presidential election.

Under RCV, voters have the option of ranking candidates in order of preference. This doesn’t mean voters have multiple votes counted; technically speaking, each voter gets one transferable vote. If any candidate receives more than 50% of first-choice votes cast, that person wins the election, and the other choices from individual ballots are not counted. If nobody reaches 50%, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those who voted for that candidate have their second-choice votes added to those candidates’ counts. The same vote-counting process continues for as many rounds as needed until a single candidate passes the 50% threshold.

While RCV doesn’t completely level the playing field for independent and third-party candidates, it is a helpful step in that direction by providing a cover of sorts for independent voters, who might choose such candidates from less popular parties while eliminating accusations of throwing away their votes on a “spoiler” candidate. If I vote for someone less likely to win who is in fact eliminated, my vote can then go to someone else I consider more bearable than the remaining alternatives that I did not include in my ranked list. I cannot speak to how this might complicate the vote counting process, but contrary to the claims of RCV opponents, I found nothing complicated about the experience of voting with a ranked-choice ballot.

Of the two presidential campaigns outside the major parties that I’ve followed with interest, in my opinion the American Solidarity Party candidate Brian Carroll came closest to fully upholding the consistent life ethic (CLE); unfortunately he didn’t secure write-in ballot access in Maine due to mail delays. Given that fact, a vote for him would have gone unrecorded. A further complication was that there was only one write-in space on the ballot, which of course would be a non-issue under conventional voting methods. So, I opted to cast my first-choice vote for independent candidate Mark Charles, an indigenous Navajo man who campaigned on a broadly inclusionary platform and had publicly expressed views suggestive of the CLE in the past — as well as having managed to gain write-in access.

Charles’ campaign had initially generated some buzz in CLE circles. His attempt at “reframing the conversation on abortion” during his campaign showed a decidedly weakened pro-life position, but even on that issue, his stated belief in the humanity of the preborn, while disappointingly tenuous, still showed these individuals more respect than either Biden (who has capitulated to his party’s pro-abortion absolutism) or Trump (whose superficial right-to-life lip service is belied by his overall disdain for vulnerable human beings, and thus deeply harmful to the pro-life cause in my view). I also believe that with his deep study of historical and collective trauma — strongly influenced by consistent-life peace psychologist Rachel MacNair — Charles would be the best-placed individual to address the country’s deep wounds and divisions, especially related to racism and racialized violence.

Seeing little hope of US policies and public discourse addressing these or any other serious issues in adequate depth with the thoroughly self-serving and distraction-driven Trump in office, I cast my second-choice vote for Biden. RCV allowed me to make clear that Biden was not my first choice, but that I considered him — and the minor-party candidates on the ballot, whom I ranked third, fourth, and fifth for good measure — preferable to the alternative. Even under the improved conditions afforded by RCV, my choice drew criticism from both sides of the political aisle, with some suggesting that ranking anyone ahead of Biden was helping to keep Trump in office, and others suggesting that ranking Biden at all was tantamount to approval of abortion up to birth. Some people on both sides, then, still saw my ranked choices as unforgivable concessions to evil. I disagree about the desirability of their preferred alternatives, but to a lesser extent they were right; all too rarely does one have the option of voting for any political candidate or platform that doesn’t advocate for some form of violence.

The usual flawed options were both highlighted and (mostly) bypassed for me in Maine’s highly publicized Senate race. The state is home to a major warship producer and General Dynamics subsidiary (Bath Iron Works), as well as a statewide abortion provider (Maine Family Planning) in addition to Planned Parenthood. Under the influence of these businesses that profit from violence, being in the pockets of both the military-industrial complex and the abortion lobby is practically an unwritten requirement for election to any Maine state or federal office. Both the Republican incumbent Susan Collins and Democratic challenger Sara Gideon were no exception.

But I did, by and large, find the exception I was looking for in Lisa Savage, who is affiliated with the Green Party yet ran for a Senate position as an Independent for ballot access reasons. Her campaign focused on equitable health care, conservationism, and most significantly for me, independence from the warmaking industry, including promoting the conversion of Bath Iron Works from a producer of instruments of war to one of clean energy and medical supplies. In fact, such an initiative was already done (partially and temporarily) when the company produced supplies for making COVID test kits. Savage’s m