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Editorial Advisory Board: Let’s reconsider ranked-choice voting for Maryland

Nearly four years ago, this board took the position that a proposed bill to allow Baltimore City “to establish open primary elections or ‘ranked choice’ voting for primary and general elections” was a poor idea. We still believe that open primaries in local elections are a bad idea, but we have reconsidered our position on ranked-choice voting as a general proposition.

Since we last wrote on this topic, confidence in the current electoral system has declined precipitously. We think that a change that may inspire voters to believe their votes are more likely than not to “count” would be a healthy step towards reversing this decline. And with so many systemic factors favoring minority rule, any change that would foster majority rule is also welcome.

Consider the recent Alaska congressional election where ranked-choice voting was used. In the first round of voting (where candidates were ranked No. 1), Mary Peltola received 40% of the vote, Sarah Palin received 31%, and Nick Begich received 29%. Under that system, Begich was eliminated and his voters had their next choices tabulated. As a result of that second round (or instant runoff), Peltola beat Palin, 52% to 49%.

Compare that result with two highly contested races in Maryland’s recent primary elections. Ten Democratic candidates ran for governor. The top three finishers were Wes Moore with 32%, Tom Perez with 30%, and Peter Franchot with 21%. The other seven candidates received a combined 17%. There was no provision for runoff, so Moore was declared the winner, even though he received less than one-third of the votes cast.

The race for Montgomery County Executive was even closer. Marc Elrich received 39.20% of the votes cast, while David Blair finished with 39.18%. Hans Riemer finished a distant third with close to 20%. Because the race was so close, a recount was held, and the winner was not determined until several weeks after the election, once again, with less than a majority of votes.

These Maryland results illustrate a major flaw in our electoral process, namely, that we elect candidates who fail to get a majority of the vote and we have no way of knowing who a majority of voters want to see as their candidate for governor and county executive. And given the reality of the Democratic majorities in Maryland and Montgomery County, we may very well have already given a win in the general election to the person who was not the choice of a majority of voters had they been given the opportunity to express a ranked choice.

Unlike in Alaska, we have no way of knowing who Franchot voters would have preferred for their second choice. Given the small differential between Moore and Perez, i.e., 2%, it is certainly as likely that Perez would have ultimately prevailed. Or at least with ranked-choice voting, if Moore had won, it would have been by a majority.

The result in Montgomery County is even more illustrative. Only 32 votes separated Elrich and Blair. Those who voted for Riemer basically threw away their votes. Again, who knows what the outcome would have been if Riemer voters had expressed their second choices.

The current system in Maryland favors incumbents, the well-connected, and the well-funded. Moreover, candidates need not appeal to or engage with the entire electorate, they need only target their strongest supporters. Candidates know that in a crowded field, they can win with a plurality, and often with a small plurality at that.

Ranked-choice voting offers an easy solution to this problem. The system simply permits voters to list preferences rather than simply vote for one candidate, and it is an instant run-off, so that the winner must get a majority of the vote. For example, if four candidates are running, and you agree with A on every issue, you rank A first. But if A does not win, you would be happy with B or C, so you rank them second and third. You disagree with D on everything and would rather have any of the three prevail over them.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting argue that it helps to reduce negative campaigning and polarized campaigns and that it increases the numbers of women and minority candidates. Ranked-choice systems tend to favor centrist candidates who have broader appeal, and who are more likely to be second or third choices even for voters who favor a more highly partisan candidate as their first choice.

Critics of the system argue that ranked-choice voting complicates the election process. They believe that it requires voters to spend more time educating themselves on candidates and more time filling out ballots. There is also a concern that the major parties could “game the system” by looking for third-party candidates to enter races for their own benefit. We believe these concerns are unfounded and are significantly outweighed by the benefits ranked-choice voting would bring.

In this country, we have enough problems with minority rule, from the nature of the Electoral College, the operation of the U.S. Senate, the effects of gerrymandering, and numerous court rulings that have allowed states to suppress the vote.

At the very least, in our state elections, we should let the majority of voters be heard. New York City, the state of Maine, and countries such as Australia and New Zealand have adopted the system, and other U.S. cities and states are considering it. Maryland should join their ranks and consider adopting ranked-choice voting.

Editorial Advisory Board members Arthur F. Fergenson, Roland Harris, Debra G. Schubert and H. Mark Stichel did not participate in this opinion.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Gary E. Bair

Andre M. Davis

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Leigh Goodmark

Roland Harris

Michael Hayes

Julie C. Janofsky

Ericka N. King

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.