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Maine Tests a New Way of Voting, and Opts to Keep It

On Tuesday, the state became the first to use ranked-choice voting, a system that could prevent “spoiler” candidates from causing havoc in crowded races.

Maine Primary
Supporters of the ranked-choice voting system embrace outside their primary night rally shortly after polls closed in Maine on Tuesday.
(AP/Charles Krupa)
Ranked-choice voting can be a tad confusing. It can wreak havoc on campaign strategies, and, sometimes, it means election officials take days or even weeks to figure out who won a race.

For voters, though, it is a straightforward way of making sure that they get what they want when they cast their ballots in races with more than two candidates running for the same spot.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that Maine voters decided to buck the political establishment and stick with the new system Tuesday, which also happened to be the first election that it was used for statewide races anywhere in the United States.

“We want to make sure every vote counts because that’s what this is all about: more voice and more choice,” said Kyle Bailey, the campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, after news that the ballot measure on whether to keep ranked-choice voting had passed.

Although Maine is the first state to use ranked-choice voting, about a dozen cities already do, including Minneapolis, Santa Fe and San Francisco.

But the fact that Mainers voted to keep ranked-choice voting as a permanent feature of their political system is significant, especially in a state where voters often consider and sometimes elect strong third-party candidates. The system could prevent “spoiler” candidates from skewing the results of three-way races.

Outgoing Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, for example, won both of his general elections that way -- a Democrat and an independent split the liberal bloc, and LePage squeaked by with a plurality. That may not have happened under the new system.

With ranked-choice voting, voters rank the candidates running for an office from most desirable to least desirable. If no candidate wins a majority in the first round of balloting, the system in effect simulates a bunch of instant runoffs until a candidate claims the majority in a round.

In the first round, the last-place finisher is eliminated. Then, all of the votes that were originally cast for that candidate are distributed instead to the candidates who were ranked second on those ballots. If no one wins a majority in the second round, the process repeats itself, with the lowest vote-getters in each round eliminated and their votes redistributed. Of course, the process stops when someone wins a majority and is declared the winner.

(The Maine secretary of state’s office released a video last month to help voters understand the system, but the system isn’t new to all Mainers. The city of Portland has used it in mayoral elections since 2010.)

Tuesday’s election was actually the second time that Maine voters agreed to use ranked-choice voting. They passed a ballot measure to make the switch in 2016, but state lawmakers objected.

Legislators claimed that it was their job -- not the voters’ -- to set up election systems, and they tried to delay the changes from taking effect until at least 2021. Proponents forced a “people’s referendum” on the legislature’s changes, which, after a series of court fights, put ranked-choice voting on the ballot again on Tuesday.

Maine’s governor, though, blasted the system Tuesday, even as Maine’s residents were using it at the polls.

LePage called it “the most horrific thing in the world,” and then added, “Maine people continue to be snookered by out-of-state big money and out-of-state people.” LePage said he “probably” would not certify the results of Tuesday’s elections because of it. “I will leave it up to the courts to decide.”

The secretary of state's office says the results can be certified without the governor's approval.

Meanwhile, voters in Maine got a taste during this primary season of the new dynamics that ranked-choice voting introduces into campaigns.

The Democratic race for governor featured seven candidates, so two of them, lobbyist Betsy Sweet and former House Speaker Mark Eves, made a joint campaign video. Sweet asked her voters to rank her first and Eves second. Eaves asked his voters to rank him first and Sweet second.

No Democrat won a majority in the gubernatorial primary, meaning the winner will be determined in further rounds of counting. As of early Wednesday, Attorney General Janet Mills led the pack, while Sweet and Eves were running in third- and fourth-place, respectively.

It could be as late as next week before Democrats know who won their primary. (In fact, San Francisco, which uses ranked-choice voting, is still sorting out the results of last week’s mayoral race.) Maine election officials will bring all of the ballots in that race to Augusta, so they can conduct the next rounds of tabulations.

Republicans, on the other hand, already know their choice for governor this fall: Businessman Shawn Moody won an outright majority of the GOP electorate Tuesday night.

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