Another Viewpoint: Ranked choice voting means you can (and should) vote your values

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As campaign manager for the Lisa Savage campaign for U.S. Senate, I was disappointed to read the Phoenix’s endorsement of our opponent, Sara Gideon. I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think Lisa’s platform – grounded in Medicare for all, a demilitarized Green New Deal, and broad pushes for equality – really did align best with Mainers’ values this election season. 

However, as someone who led the field campaign for the successful Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting, I was much more concerned by part of the endorsement’s reasoning, because it is spreading misinformation about RCV:

“In this ranked choice election, voters who are attracted by the strong policy positions and articulate presentation of independent candidate Lisa Savage will have an important choice to make,” the endorsement said. “Savage has been forthright in outlining what should be the key Democrat goals should they attain Washington power, such as Medicare for all. But in a potentially very close election, first-place votes that go to Savage, rather than Gideon, might be sufficient to allow Collins to get to a majority victory in the first round, which could be key in Republicans keeping control of the Senate.”

The emphasis is mine. Good people are free to argue about matters of opinion, but we have to make sure that we agree on the tenets of basic mathematics, and the scenario outlined in that sentence is mathematically impossible and does not reflect how ranked-choice voting works. It is akin to arguing that, sometimes, four is more than half of nine. 

Quite simply, “majority” means 50 percent plus one. With ranked choice voting, if a candidate gets that majority in round one, they win. That’s true. However, it is impossible to help a candidate reach a majority by voting for someone else. 

To illustrate this point, I ask you to imagine an election involving nine voters. In order to win round one with a majority, a candidate would have to earn the votes of five of these voters. Let’s say Susan Collins, Sara Gideon, and Lisa Savage are all running for Senate (sorry Max Linn, you’re out) and our nine imaginary voters vote like this in round one:

Collins: 4
Gideon: 4
Savage: 1

With no one having a majority, this election would move to round two. In round two, because Lisa has encouraged her voters to rank Sara No. 2, Lisa’s vote would move to Sara, and Sara would win. However, as you can see, if any of Sara’s voters changed their votes to Lisa, Susan still doesn’t have five votes. Susan still just has four votes, which can never be a majority of the nine votes cast. 

Let me and basic math assure you: There is no way to help a candidate get a majority by voting for someone else. No matter who else you vote for, Susan still doesn’t get your round one vote. If you want to think of your options as “Susan” and “Not Susan,” it might be helpful. As long as the Not Susans outnumber the Susans in round one, Susan can’t win round one.

What this does emphasize, however, is the importance of ranking a No. 2 because not ranking a “Not Susan” in round two could be a problem. In that case, you might not get a vote at all in round two. 

Let’s imagine another election with nine voters. This time, they vote this way in round one:

Collins: 4
Gideon: 2
Savage: 3

Again, Susan doesn’t have a majority in round one, and so we move to round two. This time, however, Sara’s overconfident supporters didn’t rank Lisa (or anyone) No. 2, and so when we move to round two their ballots are “exhausted” and their vote no longer counts; they’ve essentially opted out of round two. Now the round two tally looks like this, with only 7 voters left:

Collins: 4
Savage: 3

Susan’s four votes now represent a majority. 

So, how can you be sure of the best possible outcome? Rank all of the candidates in accordance with your values and how much you hope they’ll win. Rank your favorite candidate No. 1, rank your second favorite No. 2, and so on. This will ensure you get a vote in every round and that we get a winner whose values align most closely with the most Maine voters. 

And that’s a win for Maine, regardless of who you support. 

Chris Cayer is the campaign manager for U.S. Senate candidate Lisa Savage.