Maine Becomes First State to Adopt a Whole New Way of Voting

Unhappy with the results of their past elections, Mainers have opted for ranked-choice voting. It could lead to more civilized politics but lower voter turnout.
by | November 9, 2016

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.

Maine voters who didn't like the way elections turned out in the past have chosen an entirely different voting system.

A ballot measure approved by voters will make Maine the first state to implement something known as ranked-choice voting. It's different than the traditional method, where the candidate who receives the most votes wins -- regardless of whether it's a majority.

Under the new system, assuming it survives legal challenges, voters will rank candidates from most to least preferable. If no one receives a majority on the first ballot, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and voters' second choices are counted up. The process continues until a candidate earns a majority of the remaining ballots.

"People like it because they really feel strongly that candidates should be supported by a majority of voters," said Kyle Bailey, the campaign manager for the initiative.

Ranked-choice voting -- sometimes known as instant-runoff voting -- has already been adopted in about a dozen cities, including Minneapolis, San Francisco and Oakland, Calif.

It turned out to have a special appeal in Maine. Because of relatively strong independent candidates, the winner in nine out of the last 11 gubernatorial elections in Maine came away with less than a majority of the vote.

That includes incumbent Gov. Paul LePage, who won twice with pluralities. After his first victory in 2010, some Maine residents put "61 percent" stickers on their cars, identifying themselves as part of the large majority that voted against LePage.

Ranked-choice voting, some political scientists found, can lead to more civilized politics. Candidates can't run a slash-and-burn campaign against their opponents because they can't afford to alienate anyone's supporters and risk a shot at being second choice.

"When candidates have to campaign for a second- or third-place vote, it changes the dynamic from a zero-sum game," said Caroline Tolbert, a political scientist at the University of Iowa who has conducted surveys in cities with both ranked-choice voting (RCV) and traditional voting. "Respondents in RCV cities felt that the campaigns were less negative."

But other political scientists who have studied the method have identified some problems.

One challenge is voter "exhaustion," according to a study by researchers Craig Burnett and Vladimir Kogan. Looking at several local elections in California, they found that 10 to 27 percent of voters eventually stopped completing their ballots and thus did not participate in the final round that picked the winner.

"This idea that a large number of people are going to have their ballots not counted is a huge problem in every context where RCV is used," said Kogan, who teaches at Ohio State University.

Ranked-choice voting may also lead to an overall decline in voter participation. According to a study by Jason McDaniel at San Francisco State University, the new system led to lower turnout in San Francisco mayoral elections, particularly among some demographic groups.

"When voting is made more difficult," said McDaniels, "we should expect there to be some negative consequences with respect to ballot errors and voter participation, especially among those with less education, among certain racial minority groups who are less likely to participate, and among some portions of the elderly population."

Several localities that have adopted ranked-choice voting later eliminated it. That includes Burlington, Vt., where people were unhappy with the candidate chosen in the 2009 mayoral election.

But David Kimball, a University of Missouri-St. Louis political scientist who has studied RCV, notes that, "using the regular system, there are plenty of cities that don't like the mayor they got, either."

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.