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 messaging on abortion — the one major issue on which I anticipated possible disagreement with her — was somewhat mixed and decidedly muted, leading me to conclude that she came down as pro-choice, but was unwilling to make that an ideological litmus test or even a campaign issue. Being much stronger than any other candidate on some life issues and potentially persuadable on one I’d hope she might swayon, Savage easily became my preferred alternative and was, in the end, the only candidate I chose to rank for a Senate seat. Thus, in the race in which the advantages of RCV were most touted, it made no difference to my vote. However, it may have helped Savage earn more of the attention she deserved as a well-qualified third-party candidate.
Practically speaking, my ranked-choice ballot — like a conventional one — seems to have made little difference. Biden didn’t need my second-round vote as he easily won a majority in Maine and in my district in the first round, and Collins won a first-round majority in a race that had been widely expected to be decided by RCV. While neither was my first choice (literally or figuratively), I consider it an encouraging sign that a significant proportion of Mainers chose to vote for candidates from different parties, especially at a time when some political analysts have been declaring the split-ticket voter extinct. I look forward to engaging them and other elected officials at all levels, both those I voted for and those I didn’t, on all issues where human lives are threatened.
In terms of voting according to conscience, the added nuances of RCV did allow me to do so in a way that aligned more closely, though not perfectly, with my CLE principles. Voting, as Canadian Catholic theologian Brett Salkeld has written, is “a blunt instrument” for invariably complex situations that require “judging, in an arena of incredible complexity and with incomplete knowledge, what candidates are likely to be able to achieve, what policies are likely to work, what strategies seem most promising.” Therefore, he writes:
When we vote, we are not saying, ‘I think this good is good and this evil is evil,’ but something much more like, ‘I think this candidate has the best chance at overcoming this evil and pursuing this good, even though I fully accept that this same candidate could fail or only partially succeed and that they will, at the same time, pursue some other evils and limit some other goods.’ This is the kind of choice voting is. Which is deeply unsatisfying. And so we are very tempted . . . (and the parties are there to goad us on) . . . to imagine a straight line between our vote and the achievement of the goods we seek, even though politics is much messier than that.
For the goal of making the act of voting less blunt by allowing for sharper expressions of the nuanced judgment that must go into it, the fact that at least one state (plus a few others for primary elections) and an increasing number of cities across the US are using RCV is a step in the right direction. Still, multiple improvements to the electoral process are needed to give more of a voice to those of us whose consciences don’t comfortably align with major-party platforms. If RCV becomes more widely used, if barriers to ballot access are reduced in order to allow qualified third-party and independent candidates a fighting chance, if more primaries are opened to independent voters in order to allow more of a say to those less interested in partisan gains for their own sake, better options could emerge. And, of course, we need more candidates across the political spectrum who will be more palatable to a conscience that consistently values human life.