I really like math. So what does that have to do with Maine politics?
Well, it turns out at June’s gubernatorial primary we will vote by ranked choice ballot. That means math.
As we sit here today, several Democrats — Sean Faircloth, Jim Boyle, and Patrick Eisenhart — have dropped out of the race for their party’s nomination. However, 10 are still in the hunt.
If that holds true, then Maine Democrats will receive a primary ballot with 10 names. Under the ranked-choice voting law, held unconstitutional in some, but not all, elections by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, registered Democrats can rank all 10 candidates in order of preference.
For those who remember their high school arithmetic, the number of different combinations for ranking is defined by its factorial, or the top number multiplied by all successive lower integers. That is the exclamation point in math. It’s very exciting.
Working through the calculation, it is 10!. Or, more simply, 3,628,800. With over 300,000 registered Democrats in Maine, each one could essentially vote 10 times and theoretically never put the candidates in the same order.
Better hope we don’t have a recount.
That is one of the challenges with ranked choice voting. Advocates collected enough signatures quickly enough to pause the Legislature’s law winding it down. So, unless the Legislature passes “emergency” legislation (spoiler alert: they won’t) to overcome the people’s veto effort, Maine’s town and city clerks will need to find a way to hold an election and let voters rank their choices.
To do it effectively requires a significant amount of computing power, which means money. Otherwise, with over 3 million ways to mark a ballot, there is no reasonable way to add up the ballots and undertake the “runoff” portion of “instant runoff” voting.
It is slightly contradictory to watch some of the advocates who are pushing ranked-choice voting declare it the best way to ensure a government reflective of the people, while at the same time decrying the attempts by foreign adversaries — most notably Russia — to leverage their cyber capabilities and interfere with American elections. It would seem that outsourcing more of our elections into computerized calculations, with complexity reducing the redundancy provided by hand recounts, moves us in the wrong direction.
Beyond ranking our choices for governor in June, the question of whether we want to keep ranked-choice voting altogether will be asked. It will be interesting to see how Mainers decide when faced concurrently with a ranked-choice ballot.
That does not mean there are not ways to improve our electoral system. With 10 Democrats on the ballot and ranked-choice voting in play, how much will the average voter — with a job, family, and social commitments — really be able to differentiate between the candidates? How are Janet Mills and Adam Cote really different? What will Betsy Sweet do that Diane Russell won’t? And so on.
The same questions arise on the Republican side, but with fewer candidates, it is easier to see the fault lines between them. Nevertheless, we might want to take our cue from Lewiston.
On the east bank of the Androscoggin, anyone can run for mayor. But if, on election day, no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates go into a traditional runoff. They spend several weeks in a campaign sprint to the end, distilling their differences down into a clear choice for voters. In the last two mayoral go-rounds, the Maine People’s Alliance candidate Ben Chin earned a plurality on the first ballot; he went on to lose to a more conservative candidate on the second ballot.
So, if the June election leads to a “no” vote on the people’s veto and a reconsideration of the wisdom of offering over 3 million choices, the conversation should not end. Rather than ranked-choice voting and factorials, maybe Maine voting reform should focus on division of the field into two candidates. We could do it through parties, or we could do it through an open primary system.
Yet either way, forcing our candidates to sprint to the finish could be worthwhile. And it would certainly be exciting. Like factorials. With an exclamation point.