Where to After Maine? Here are Three Targets for the Next Cycle

I previously wrote that the biggest libertarian victory of 2016 was the successful passing of electoral reform in Maine. In a referendum, the citizens of Maine voted to scrap first-past-the-post elections (FPP), in which the candidate with the most votes wins whether they get a majority or not, and replace it with ranked-choice voting.

For those who didn’t read that article, ranked choice means voters write their relative preferences among all candidates, instead of ticking a box next to one name. When a third or fourth place finisher is eliminated, their votes are reallocated in accordance with the voter’s second preferences. This goes on until one candidate has a majority, or until there are only two candidates remain. In the latter event, the one with the most votes at the end of all vote redistributions is the winner.

In theory, the winner of a ranked-choice would have a majority of stacked preferences. In practice, of course, many voters will not rank their preferences all the way down a ballot, especially if there are a significant number of candidates. Either way, the winner can claim a far stronger mandate than, say, a candidate who gets 40% of the vote and wins the election because his opponents were evenly split in an FPP race.

Maine Leads the Way

It’s easy to see why Maine would be eager to enact this sort of electoral reform. Their governor, Paul LePage, won election in 2010 largely thanks to the left’s splitting between independent candidate Eliot Cutler and Democrat Elizabeth Mitchell. In that election, Cutler and Mitchell won 35.9% and 18.8% of the vote respectively. Businessman Shawn Moody also ran as independent, winning 5%, a strong showing in its own right. The result of all this vote-splitting, however, was that the ultra-conservative LePage was able to claim victory with just 37.6% of the vote. Hardly a mandate worth celebrating.

The benefit of a ranked-choice system is that it allows for a wonderful diversity of candidates and ideologies, which Maine already has, without running the risk of vote-splitting leading to unrepresentative results. Ranked choice gives voters far more freedom in their democratic options. They can choose a Green or an independent, a Libertarian or a Pirate, all without fear of ending up with the greater of two evils.

Anyone who has tried to campaign for a third-party candidate knows what a galling task it is to convince people that they are not throwing their votes away. That is why Libertarians, Greens, and independents (with the full support of Democrats who have been burned twice by LePage) were able to unite around the campaign in Maine.

Maine has voted for sounder, better democracy. The rest of the nation should follow suit.

Our Next Targets

But not all states are created equal in their politics or their openness to new ideas. With our limited financial and human resources, it is worth thinking about where Libertarians can successfully enact similar changes. And because our resources are limited, our targets should be states small enough that an impact could really be felt. We also have to consider whether a state allows initiatives and referendums. It’s unlikely that we could succeed in pressuring a state government into changing its own electoral rules; it’s a rare thing indeed for politicians to vote against their own entrenched interests.

Our chief criteria should thus be: Ease of initiating a referendum, population of the state (a decent heuristic for economic and manpower cost), citizens’ libertarian sensibilities, and citizens’ openness to independent candidates (and ideologies outside the mainstream generally).

With those criteria in mind, I suggest the following three states as top targets as we move into the next electoral cycle, all of which allow ballot initiatives like Maine (ordered from most to least promising).

1. Alaska

Alaska seems like the perfect place for a campaign for ranked-choice voting. Its citizens have proven very open to libertarian ideas, perhaps unsurprising for a state full of more than its fair share of rugged individualists.

Formal Libertarians have lately seen quite a bit of success as well. Joe Miller, who ran as the party’s candidate for the Senate this year placed in second with 29.1% of the vote. The victorious Republican, incumbent Lisa Murkowski, won the election with just 44.3%.

Alaskans are also uncommonly open to independent candidates. In 2014, ex-Republican Bill Walker won the governorship as an independent (though that victory was thanks in large part to the Democrats not putting up a candidate of their own). Likewise, in the 2016 Senate race, independent candidate Margaret Stock managed to get 13.2% of the vote, placing third (ahead of the official Democratic candidate).

The particular weakness of the Democratic Party might prove a boon to a ranked-choice campaign. They have found themselves fragmented and unable to compete with the GOP. It seems likely that Alaska’s Democratic leadership could be coaxed into backing a rank-choice initiative, as it would help re-coalesce their supporters in the final count, as well as take away from the top-line dominance of the Republicans.

With a population of about 740,000, Alaska is 48th most populous state. In terms of the organizational and financial resources necessary to mount a successful grassroots campaign for electoral change, Alaska looks like an excellent investment.

2. Vermont

It may seem crazy to suggest deep blue Vermont, home of arch-leftist Bernie Sanders, as a promising target for a libertarian campaign, but hear me out.

Vermont may be true blue, but it also has a strong record of electing independents. Sanders himself is an independent socialist, after all. And the success of the Democrats is itself an opening. When a party is dominant, internal factions emerge. These could be played to the advantage of an electoral reform campaign.

We should not forget that Vermont does have its Libertarians, and they do better than the national average much of the time. In the 2014 gubernatorial race, Dan Feliciano won 4.4% as the Libertarian candidate. Furthermore, if we take a look at the Vermont Republicans, we see a lot more in common with the Libertarian platform than the mainline GOP, with a greater focus on economic probity and less concern for regulating individual social liberties.

Vermont is also tiny. Even less populous than Alaska, and far less expansive geographically, a concerted campaign can be waged with comparatively little cost.

Finally, it is worth considering Vermont’s environmentalist and Green movements, which are very strong in the state. Building a coalition similar to that which was so successful in nearby Maine is possible, and would quite likely achieve similar results.

3. Nevada

Nevada, with its fairly deep libertarian streak, could also be an excellent target. Citizens can initiate referenda on both statutes and amendments, so a strong ground game could force it onto the ballot.

Going back to its earliest days, Nevada has bucked the social trends of the rest of the country, favoring greater freedom and less intrusive government into individuals’ private affairs. The state’s legalization of both gambling and prostitution remain largely anomalies in a more puritanical country.

Nevada doesn’t have the most sterling record of Libertarian and independent success, but it seems like a solid place to mount a campaign for electoral change.

This post was written by John Engle.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.

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