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How to fix everything

Politics + Other Mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  January 23, 2013

I'm not a big fan of reform. Perhaps that's the result of a childhood lived under constant threats from parents and teachers that if I didn't change my ways, I'd be sent to "reform school."

I never took those warnings too seriously, so my aversion to reform probably owes more to reading H. L. Mencken. In his A New Dictionary of Quotations, there's this listing:

"Reforms should begin at home and stay there."

It's credited to "author unknown," but that was often Mencken's way of quoting himself.

Maine's greatest contribution to Congress, Thomas Brackett Reed (speaker of the House, 1889-1891 and 1895-1899), was also less than enthusiastic about reform. Reed saw it this way:

"An indefinable something is to be done, in a way nobody knows how, at a time nobody knows when, that will accomplish nobody knows what."

This state has a considerable history of reforms that haven't worked out quite as promised. Prohibition, which Maine adopted long before the rest of the country, proved lucrative for criminals, but ineffective in most other ways. Term limits on legislators were supposed to open up seats so more ordinary citizens could serve. Instead, that law allowed a few masterful tacticians to preside over an idiocracy. Public funding of elections was said to be the way to thwart the power of rich people and corporations. It turned out that was unconstitutional, and now those entities dominate campaign spending.

You might think the reformers would have learned their lesson by now, but you'd be wrong. They've just come up with a swell new proposal. It requires term limits on drinking booze paid for with public money.

Oops, sorry. That idea is still in development. This year's version of fixing what isn't broken is called ranked-choice voting. The effort to have the governor elected by this complicated and expensive method is being sponsored by Democratic state Representative Janice Cooper and independent state Senator Richard Woodbury, both of Yarmouth (somebody should check the water supply in that town).

"This isn't a major change in the way the system works," Cooper told the Forecaster.

Assuming that by "major," she doesn't mean a constitutional amendment, the appropriation of millions of dollars, the creation of a logistical nightmare, and the likelihood of mass confusion. After all, most of those same drawbacks plague crowd-control efforts on an average Saturday night in Portland's Old Port.

Speaking of Portland, it already has ranked-choice voting. It was used for the first time in 2011 to pick a mayor from among 15 candidates. Voters rated each contender from their first choice to their last. When the ballots were counted the person with the lowest number of first-place votes was eliminated, and his or her support was distributed to whoever was ranked second. This process continued until somebody got a majority.

According to supporters, that's the big advantage of ranked-choice voting. It produces a winner backed by over 50 percent of the electorate. And it does that in the same way that Prohibition reduced immorality, term limits increased accountability and Clean Election funding did away with corruption.

Which is to say, it doesn't.

Michael Brennan, the winner of the mayor's race in Portland, received support on a little less than 46 percent of all valid ballots cast. That's because ranked-choice voting requires throwing out any "exhausted" ballots, those on which the voter didn't express a preference for either the eventual winner or the runner-up.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Politics, Thomas Brackett Reed, reform
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