On November 8, 2011, Portland, Maine residents will vote for mayor for the first time in nearly a century. For the past 88 years, Portland’s city councilors annually appointed the mayor. However, last year Portland residents voted to popularly elect the mayor. The impetus behind the change is the hope that an elected mayor will carry more political clout in Augusta, the State Capitol. This sudden creation of a very powerful political figure is drawing lots of attention from academics assessing the potential political impacts.
However, the election changes more than just Maine’s political balance and who chooses the mayor. It also establishes a controversial voting procedure for how the mayor is chosen. The 2011 mayor race will use instant-runoff voting (IRV), which encompasses voters’ preferential choices. Here’s how IRV works: each voter votes for as many candidates as he wants, ranking them from his first to last preference. The instant runoff ballot might look like this. Once the votes are collected, voters’ first choices are tallied. If any candidate carries more than 50% of the vote, then that candidate wins. However, given that there are 16 candidates in Portland’s mayoral race, it is extremely unlikely that one candidate will carry the necessary 50% of the vote. If no candidate has more than 50% of the vote, then the candidate receiving the lowest number of first place votes is eliminated, and his votes are redistributed to the candidates his voters ranked as their second choice. This process is repeated from the bottom up until one candidate carries the necessary majority.
Supporters claim that IRV leads to political consensus building and more efficient election administration. In theory, because candidates need to capture preferential votes to win, they need to appeal to more groups than just their base. The incentives for polarization and mudslinging are reduced and moderate candidates are given a better chance to win. Furthermore, because voters’ secondary preferences are considered, it is less likely that votes between two similar candidates will be split. IRV is already used in a few American cities and some foreign countries, most notably Australia. While runoff elections achieve similar results, the instant runoff election reduces administrative costs and theoretically increases voter turnout by consolidating voting into one event.
However, IRV elections pose some problems. They can lead to unlikely but quirky and socially undesirable outcomes if there are only a few candidates. Some fear that voters will get confused. Further, they could be subject to significant legal challenges. When Minnesota instituted a similar voting scheme for the St. Paul mayor in 2010, the system came under legal challenge for violating the “one person, one vote” standards established in U.S. Supreme Court cases Reynolds v. Sims and Avery v. Midland. San Francisco’s IRV systems came under similar scrutiny. In both cases it was argued that because IRV uses preferential votes from some ballots but not from others, that it effectively gives some people more votes than other people, and thus violates the “one person, one vote” standard. Both the Minnesota and San Francisco elections were ultimately upheld in favor of IRV. Portland’s November election could bring these IRV constitutionality issues before the Maine judiciary for the first time, and nearby cities considering IRV will likely watch the election closely.
Ryan Shallard is a third-year law student at William and Mary Law School