Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) is not a beloved leader. Just 39 percent of Maine voters approve of his performance in office, and he would lose a one-on-one race against his likely Democratic challenger by a massive 54-39 margin. Nor are these numbers particularly surprising. Despite being the governor of a blue state, LePage supports cutting health and retirement benefits to pay for tax cuts for the rich, rolling back child labor laws, blacklisting journalists — all while making anal rape jokes and protesting a non-existent “tax on bull semen.”
And yet, thanks to the absurd way that Maine (and most other states) conduct their elections, LePage could wind up being reelected in a state that hates his policies and would rather vote for his opponent.
Although LePage would lose in a blowout to Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME) in a two-way race, in a much more likely three-way race between Michaud, LaPage, and independent candidate Eliot Cutler, Michaud’s lead shrinks to just four points — 39-35, with Culter polling 18 percent.
If this scenario sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In the 2010 Maine gubernatorial race, Culter — a former Carter Administration official who frequently attacks LaPage from the left — squared off against LaPage and Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell. Although LaPage received only 38 percent of the statewide vote, the remaining vote largely split between the two left-of-center candidates. Nearly 56 percent of Mainers either voted for the Democrat or voted for the former Democratic official, but the guy who received just 38 percent of the vote got to be governor nonetheless.
This is known as a “first-past-the-post” electoral system, and it works fine in races where there are only two meaningful candidates. In three or more candidate races, however, first-past-the-post voting typically causes the majority vote to be split between two or more candidates, allowing most voters’ least favorite choice to win the election. Think of Al Gore splitting the left-of-center vote in 2000 with Ralph Nader, allowing the Supreme Court to award the presidency to George W. Bush.
There are alternatives to this flawed system of vote counting. A few states use a so-called “jungle primary” where all candidates run together in one giant primary, regardless of party affiliation, and then the top two voter getters enter a runoff. This system, however, has its own problems. In many-candidate races, the vote can be so divided in the primary that the top two candidates enjoy the support of only a small segment of the state’s voters. In the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial race, for example, voters were forced to choose between former Gov. Edwin Edwards (D), who was eventually sentenced to ten years in prison on racketeering charges, and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke (R). Bumper stickers advised voters to “Vote for the crook, it’s important.”
One potential way to solve this problem is a system known as “instant runoff voting,” which allows voters to rank their choices and then redistributes their votes to other candidates in order of the voter’s preference if their first choice does not win. Thus, Nader voters could have listed Gore as their second choice and prevented a Bush presidency, and Louisiana voters could have listed both Edwards and Duke as disfavored candidates. Other states have an automatic runoff between the two top vote getters in a general election if no one earns a majority of the votes.
In any event, however, it is difficult to defend the most common system of counting ballots in the United States — or any other system that is so prone to elect a candidate that few voters want.