Ranked Choice Voting Could Start Renewal of Democracy According to Scholar

Larry Diamond is a renowned democracy scholar based at Stanford (and affiliated with my organization, the National Endowment for Democracy, I can happily say). He has made a career out of analyzing democracy in theory and practice all over the world—its grand historical arcs and concepts, as well as its finer details.

So our state should take notice when he calls Question 5 on the Maine ballot this November the “second-most important vote on Nov. 8” in the nation. He recently wrote an op-ed for BDN, which hopefully you all saw already, laying out how he believes the passage of Question 5 could have national implications. But he also recently penned an article for Foreign Policy—not a common venue for Maine political discussion—elaborating why he believes the introduction of ranked choice voting in Maine would have global implications as well. I would highly recommend reading it, but the gist of the article is that democracy around the world has been struggling, and the poor political situation in the U.S. is doing little to boost confidence in the system. Professor Diamond believes ranked choice voting could be a key way to fundamentally improve the state of politics in America, which could begin to serve again as a standard-setter for democratic practice globally and reverse the trend of increasing authoritarianism. And the beginning of that reform could come from Maine this November:

One advantage of the American federal system is that crucial political reforms can take place in one state first and then spread to others if they work. Maine’s vote on Question 5 could trigger a wave of reform momentum in other states. And the resulting reinvigoration of American democracy could once again make the country an example that inspires admiration — and emulation — around the world.

The idea of states as the laboratories of democracy has a chance to be proven true here. Few people are happy with the state of politics in the U.S. today, and many would leap at the chance to change that. But what is given less consideration outside of academic circles is the negative effects the poor state of American democracy has on the rest of the world. More so than any active foreign policy actions by the government, the image of the United States as an enormously successful democracy has had powerful effects on the political direction of other countries. The narrative of democratic triumph over fascism and communism was something felt around the world, as was the economic and cultural strength of the United States, the leading symbol of democracy. This is increasingly being replaced by a narrative of decline in democracies, the U.S. first among them.

I can say from personal experience that people in other countries really do pay attention. I remember clearly when the 2013 government shutdown happened while I was in India, and my Indian host brother, having heard about it on the local news, was utterly baffled and tried to get me to explain to him why it occurred. I could relay the details to him, but it was hard to ignore the fact that it was but one sign of a breaking system. I can only imagine what he thinks of the current election. His attention to American politics was not unique either; everywhere I’ve been, I’ve found that most people keep an eye on events here. As everyone sees what’s happening in other parts of the world, they take those lessons to their own streets and ballot boxes. The U.S. gets the largest share of that attention, and nobody likes what they’re seeing right now.

When it comes time to vote this November, the first consideration about ranked choice voting, as well as the other ballot initiatives, should be what’s best for Maine. What’s the problem that needs solving, and will this help solve it? In this case, I think the answer is that yes, political dysfunction is an issue in Maine as much as anywhere in the country, and this new voting system has a real chance of improving the situation—others have written more about that. But Professor Diamond brings an interesting second consideration into the debate: might this be the best choice for the country? Even the world? It’s hard to imagine one’s voting power in such a way—its implications years or decades down the line—yet it is important to incorporate the full picture of possibilities into one’s decision.


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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.