Ranked Choice Voting in Other Countries

One of the issues the people of Maine will be voting on in November is voting itself. The ballot will include a question on whether to adopt ranked choice voting, a member of the larger “preferential” voting system category where voters mark their preference for multiple candidates. Ranked choice voting seeks to end the practice of candidates winning office from a simple plurality instead of a majority, as often happens in Maine gubernatorial elections. The current first past the post voting system has a long and, to many, frustrating history in Maine of putting people in office who a majority of voters did not support. Here is a short video on how ranked choice voting (also known as the alternative vote) works:

This video is the second in a series. The first explains the problems with the first past the post voting system, which you can watch here. The creator, CGP Grey has a lot of good videos explaining different aspects of electoral systems.

The referendum will likely be a highly discussed topic given how it could significantly alter the character of elections in the state. The ranked choice system is also not without its own flaws, including some ambiguity as to whether it is permissible under the state constitution.

Of course, while Maine would be the only state in the nation to use this voting system for statewide elections, there are some around the world that have been using preferential voting for quite awhile and others who have switched to it recently. Ireland and Australia have both been using ranked choice voting and related preferential systems to elect their national legislatures since 1918. The Australian Senate and Irish Parliament actually use a single transferrable voting system, which is ranked choice voting’s significantly more complicated cousin used for constituencies electing multiple candidates for the same position, e.g. electing two senators at once. These proportional systems are very different in terms of how a constituency gets represented in the legislature, but they share the “preferential” characteristic of ranked choice voting. Australia’s House of Representatives uses the kind of ranked choice voting Maine is looking to adopt.

Neither country adopted preferential voting systems over the same concern about split votes that is driving Maine’s ranked choice voting proponents. In Australia, preferential voting first began in Queensland before strong political parties had become the norm. In Ireland, their electoral system took the shape it did just before the country gained independence in part because of Britain’s interest in protecting the Protestant minority. Looking at where they are now, it does seem that the preferential voting systems provided a stronger spot for smaller parties and independents, as is the hope in Maine. Minor parties have a strong place in Ireland, and while that’s less true in Australia—they’ve moved more towards a two-party system since the 1940s—they are still more important than in the U.S. There are certainly other factors that play into this (the proportional representation and parliamentary systems in Ireland chief among them), but preferential voting has helped.

If for no other reason, the fact that these two countries, also members of the Anglosphere, have been successfully using preferential voting systems for almost 100 years makes it clear that adopting rank choice voting is generally feasible. That is important considering that some of the primary reservations with adopting ranked choice voting, both in Maine and elsewhere, are higher costs and voters not understanding it. Although Australia’s Senate voting system has some issues with being too complex due to electing so many people at once (imagine ranking 82 candidates), neither they nor Ireland have otherwise substantially struggled with cost or voter comprehension.

Sample state legislature ballot from Australia. Source: New South Wales Electoral Commission.

Sample state legislature ballot from Australia. Source: New South Wales Electoral Commission.

Papua New Guinea provides another interesting look at ranked choice voting, although it is less relevant to Maine. Papua New Guinea adopted ranked choice voting in 2003 in an attempt to make the election process fairer and therefore less volatile following a particularly violent election in 2002. It worked somewhat but was not a panacea, since violence still occurred in their 2007 and 2012 elections, albeit much less so than in 2002. Preferential voting had also been attempted in Bosnia and Fiji to alleviate ethnic tensions in voting with varying degrees of success. These cases all speak to the very complex ways electoral systems interact with the societies they function within, particularly in post-conflict situations. Thankfully the environment Maine will be voting in will not be quite so dire.

There are many other political bodies around the world that use preferential voting systems, either at the local or provincial level, such as parts of Hong Kong and New Zealand, or indirectly, as with the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament in India elected by state governments. It is not nearly as prevalent as the first past the post system we use in the U.S., or list systems where one simply votes for parties, but it is not a brand new idea. There are specific pros and cons surrounding ranked choice voting in Maine of course, but the simple fact that we would be altering one of the most basic and longstanding aspects of our democracy—how we vote—is understandably disconcerting. Knowing that others have done it without being struck by some unforeseen disastrous consequence can offer a little peace of mind to Maine voters in November.


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Phoenix McLaughlin

About Phoenix McLaughlin

Phoenix McLaughlin works at the National Endowment for Democracy helping to foster political development in Asia. Phoenix lives in Washington, D.C. now, but was born and raised in Norway, Maine. In between, he has studied and/or worked in Colorado, Nepal, India, France, Ethiopia, and Augusta. All opinions expressed on this blog are solely his own and do not represent his current or former employers.