As Maine Goes ... So Goes the Way Americans Vote?

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Supporters of ranked-choice voting embrace outside their primary night rally shortly after polls closed in Portland, Maine.

Is Maine going to change the way Americans vote? Last Tuesday, voters in Maine primaries picked candidates using ranked-choice voting (RCV) in which they were able to rank candidates rather than vote for just one of the candidates.

Voters also weighed in on a referendum related to RCV for the second time in two years. This was after a Maine Supreme Judicial Court advisory opinion deemed some parts of the prior referendum unconstitutional, and the Maine State Legislature voted to delay and potentially repeal RCV. In the end, voters supported RCV and struck down the legislation, although a constitutional amendment would still be necessary for ranked choice to be used according to the 2016 referendum’s design. 

Over a dozen American cities currently use RCV, also known as “instant-runoff voting,” but Maine is the first state to adopt this system. We saw the system in action as we followed developments closely and voted and can offer a very preliminary assessment of proponents’ claims that RCV has the potential to fundamentally transform electoral politics. Maine will need several election cycles before the larger impacts of these changes to the voting system become clear. But we can say that opponents’ predictions of mass confusion at the polls fell flat, while proponents’ most positive claims were only partially vindicated.  

How does ranked choice work? In most U.S. elections, the candidate with the most votes wins. With a crowded field of candidates this can mean that the eventual winner has nowhere near a majority. If no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest first rankings is eliminated, their voters’ second choice rankings are redistributed. The tabulations are repeated until a candidate has a majority. 

Last week, Maine voters ranked as many candidates as they liked in the Democratic primary in the Second Congressional District, one Republican primary for the state legislature andthe two statewide races with more than two candidates: the gubernatorial primaries in both parties. In the end, the candidates who led in the first round won but the system allowed for other possibilities. 

It remains unclear whether Maine’s innovative democratic experiment could travel to other states. Its partial adoption here has been driven by Maine’s political idiosyncrasies. The shift is rooted in a political culture that values and encourages participation. Maine has resisted efforts to end same-day voter registration, rejected voter-ID laws, and is one of only two states (Vermont is the other) that allows incarcerated individuals to vote. 

Mainers can also implement laws via “citizens’ initiatives” or overturn laws via “people’s veto.” These features permit citizens to initiate reforms directly even with institutionalized political resistance. Direct votes by Mainers have proliferated in recent years for two reasons: voter frustration with the legislative process and because national groups have found Maine an inexpensive place to work with local allies and mount test campaigns on controversial topics such astax limitations, marriage equality and gun control.Other states may face more arduous pathways to electoral reform and implementation.

The shift to RCV in Maine was bolstered by claims it would prevent the election of more extreme candidates such as Maine Governor Paul LePage, a quarrelsome Republican who revels in attacking his critics, defiantly claiming he’s an opponent of all that is politically correct. LePage was twice elected without a majority, and nine of the last eleven gubernatorial elections have failed to yield a majority winner. 

But the measure also drew significant energy from good government groups, such as the League of Women Voters, which argued that the system was more representative of the popular will, and would encourage civility and moderation among the candidates. Independents and third parties supported the measure as a way for voters to support their preferred candidates, thereby eliminating fears about “wasted votes.” 

Despite its potential to benefit candidates from any political party, the issue became quite partisan, reflecting the intensely polarized atmosphere of the current political moment in time. This divide also occurred because interest in ranked choice among Maine Democrats and progressives was partly a response to LePage’s victories. 

On the other side, the Maine Republican Party opposed RCV, filing lawsuits, using legislative and executive actions, utilizing harsh rhetoric, and actively mobilizing GOP voters. 

Research on RCV is mixed: Some studies find that ranking candidates leads to a higher degree of voter error resulting in more disqualified ballots. Numerous academic studies suggest that RCV makes voting more difficult and may even drive down turnout, particularly among the elderly and nonwhite voters. Tuesday’s vote did produce scattered reports of higher numbers of “spoiled” ballots, but most voters seemed to have had little trouble with the new process. In fact, the complex wording on the referendum question about RCV seems to have caused more confusion than the voting method itself. 

However, the first ever RCV election was a primary contest. Primaries tend to draw out the most knowledgeable and active voters. The true test for voters’ understanding of RCV may be its use in a general election. 

We may have also gotten a glimpse into voters’ frustration with the two-party system. Unofficial, preliminary voting data suggests that turnout among voters who are not enrolled in either party was significantly higher than in comparable years. Based on incomplete returns, on June 12, 53,000 more votes were cast in the RCV referendum question than in the gubernatorial party primaries. This suggests that unenrolled voters turned out in force, anxious for a system that prevents vote-splitting, leading to people’s least favorite choice winning. It also provides more opportunities for independent and third-party candidates to win elections. (Unlike most states, Maine has a rich history of victories by candidates who are unaffiliated by either of the two major parties.)

This lesson that could have broad applicability elsewhere. The use of RCV in a general election would prove more instructive in assessing proponents’ claims. Opting for an independent or third-party candidate would only come into play in a general election. The strong support for RCV could also be a localized reflection of frustration with obstruction by the Maine State Legislature, which has failed to enact numerous recent citizens’ initiatives on issues like Medicaid expansion and education funding increases. 

There are also promising, but mixed, early signs for RCV proponents’ claims about civility and moderation. RCV proponents also predicted that strategies would change and candidates would be less prone to pursue negative attacks.

Demonstrating civility and cooperation, two progressive Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Betsy Sweet, a state legislative lobbyist for progressive groups, and Mark Eves, a former Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, essentially forged an alliance in the closing weeks of the campaign. They appeared at events together and on social media encouraging voters to rank the other as their second choice. In the final primary debate and via Facebook, Eves also publicly condemned negative ads funded by a national political organization aimed at one of the frontrunners, Adam Cote, an attorney, veteran and clean energy entrepreneur. 

Similarly, outside groups such as the Working Families Party, a party which has never registered enough members to field candidates in Maine, produced digital ads explaining RCV and encouraging Maine voters to rank Sweet, Eves, and RCV proponent Diane Russell as their first through third ballot choices. 

Ironically, in this election none of the candidates who endorsed each other or were promoted as a slate came out on top in the first round. In fact, the candidates who attacked each other the most, Attorney General Janet Mills and Cote, captured the top two places on Election Day. Those two and the publicly funded Sweet, who was third in the first round, had the most campaign funds of the seven Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Still, this example shows how RCV can compel candidates to focus not only on capturing votes, but on how they are perceived by the most dedicated supporters of their opponents. 

The future of ranked-choice voting in Maine remains in flux. There may be unintended consequences, such as difficulties forming legislative coalitions if RCV were extended to general elections resulting in higher numbers of independent and third-party candidates.  

Nevertheless, this experiment in Maine’s “laboratory of democracy” provides a crucial test case for states and localities seeking to transform their electoral processes to better reflect the will of the people.

This article was posted in conjunction with the Scholars Strategy Network.

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