In a political system awash in big spending and deep divisions, Massachusetts voters are being pitched a system this November that purports to “help fix these problems."
So-called spoiler candidates would be eliminated, and negative campaigning curbed, advocates argue. Voters would have more choices, and the influence of money could be blunted, they say. Actor Jennifer Lawrence has even trotted out her approval.
They’re all arguments Maine voters heard, too, before they voted in 2016 to implement what’s known as ranked-choice voting, and again in 2018 to essentially keep it, including after their own Jennifer Lawrence cameo.
But two years after ranked-choice elections began there, the statewide system — the only one of its kind in the country — has lived a tangled existence, buffeted by legal challenges and partisan bickering that complicate the road map Maine could otherwise provide to Massachusetts voters.
The worst case-scenario costs and debilitating confusion that critics predicted haven’t borne out, and third-party candidates say the system helps quell disincentives to run. The system has also already proved the difference-maker in a congressional race, where New England’s last GOP-held congressional district flipped to a Democratic challenger.
But all its promised benefits haven’t come to fruition either, particularly in two expensive, high-profile federal races in which heavy spending and negative attacks have loomed large within Maine’s distinctive political environment, where independent, centrist candidates have long thrived.
“The experiment so far is totally incomplete,” Ronald Schmidt Jr., a professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, said of Maine’s ranked-choice voting, used first in June 2018 and slated for the first time to be applied to the presidential race in November. “Maine could wind up being in the position of being an important early experience in ranked-choice voting. But it can also wind up being this weird anomaly.”
As proposed in Question 2 on Massachusetts’ November ballot, ranked-choice elections would give voters the option of ranking candidates for an office in order of preference. If a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, he or she is the winner. But if no one does, the candidate with the fewest votes is stripped away and those voters are reallocated to the remaining candidates based on their second choice.
The process goes for as many rounds as it takes for one candidate to earn a majority of votes. If approved in Massachusetts, the new system, also known as instant-runoff voting, would be used for primary and general elections for statewide offices — governor, attorney general, and more — as well as congressional and state legislative offices starting in 2022.
Similar versions of ranked-choice elections have been used or enacted in 21 cities or counties, including in Cambridge, and it’s been used for federal elections in places such as Australia and Ireland for decades.
Yet, on a statewide scale, Maine offers an unprecedented, and proximate, test case for Massachusetts voters weighing whether it would improve the elections system here.
Similar to Massachusetts, where recent congressional primary winners have emerged with relative slivers of the total vote, Maine entered its ranked-choice voting debate with a history of plurality winners in its gubernatorial races. Before 2018, no governor since Angus King in 1998 had claimed more than 50 percent of the vote, and two of the previous three elections — when Democrat John E. Baldacci won in 2006 and Paul R. LePage in 2010 — produced winners with less than 40 percent.
Approved in 2016, the system’s benefits were seemingly on display in its first test, the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Two of the seven candidates, Betsy Sweet and Mark Eves, spent weeks campaigning together, even appearing in a joint ad touting each other as progressive choices. Neither won the primary, but their campaigns offered an example of the uncommon political civility the system can engender, giving candidates incentive to appeal to a broader base of voters without attacks.
Then-Attorney General Janet Mills, who led with an initial 33 percent of the vote, ultimately emerged with the nomination after several rounds of a tabulation process state officials later said went “smoothly.”
“I ranked all seven and I did a write-in, because why not?" said Cara McCormick, cofounder of Maine’s Committee for Ranked Choice Voting and now the campaign manager for the Massachusetts ballot question committee. “We say ranked choice gives you more choice and more voice. That was very freeing.”
The announcement on who ultimately won the primary didn’t come until eight days after the election, and it took nine days before a winner was declared in the 2018 congressional race between Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden. Golden trailed Poliquin before ranked-choice tabulations began, but gained more than 50 percent of the vote after the subsequent choices of voters who backed two independent candidates were meted out.
But even with that time-consuming process — in Maine, as is proposed in Massachusetts, the tabulation process must be done in a central location — the extra costs for running ranked-choice elections fell well below initial projections, adding roughly $442,000 that year, according to the office of Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who once projected a $1 million-a-year tab. The bulk of the extra spending went toward printing a separate ballot for referendum questions voters were deciding that November.
The system, advocates say, has also helped spur a larger slate of choices. In this year’s heated Senate race headlined by Senator Susan Collins and Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, Lisa Savage, a former Maine Green Independent Party member, has said she probably wouldn’t be running if Maine did not use ranked-choice voting, which helps reduce the potential for vote-splitting.
“It’s more of a question of representation. I think that’s really the argument for it,” said Amy Fried, a University of Maine political science professor. “It does provide a way for people to vote for a candidate they would want to vote for but wouldn’t because they’re afraid it might undermine the overall election.
“But,” Fried added, “I would say the jury is still out on some of the other things.”
The presence of ranked-choice voting has done little to mute the influence of spending or an inundation of negative advertising in the state’s most high-profile races. Outside groups spent more than $13.7 million in Poliquin and Golden’s race, more than $12 million of which went toward negative advertising, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
And this year’s Senate race has drawn more than $59 million in outside spending, fueling a stream of scathing spots targeting both Collins and Gideon — on top of the campaigns' own attack ads.
The dynamics likely owe to two factors, experts and former candidates say: Both races drew attention well beyond Maine’s borders amid a nationwide fight for party control in the House and Senate. And both are, or were, tightly fought general election contests, headlined by Democrats and Republicans who are trying to draw a contrast to one another.
“Money in politics has everything to do with it if it’s a toss-up race,” said Poliquin, arguing that his race and the Senate one this year put the lie to the idea that ranked-choice voting can reduce the influence of money or tamp down negativity.
“There’s nearly $100 million in that [Senate] race, and it’s as nasty as my race,” Poliquin said. "The first two things that were sold to us, not only were they not true in 2018, they’re not true this year either.”
As votes were still being counted, Poliquin also contributed to another byproduct of the system’s implementation: litigation. He filed, and weeks later dropped, a challenge to ranked-choice voting, adding to a legal history so complex the state keeps a running, 1,500-word log of the developments on its website.
The court wrangling has largely pitted Maine Republicans against ranked-choice voting’s Democratic supporters, injecting a partisan dynamic into a system that experts say doesn’t inherently favor one party over another.
The latest legal fights in Maine have centered on allowing ranked-choice to be applied to this year’s presidential race for the first time (Maine’s highest court has ruled it will) and the Senate race (a federal judge ruled the same).
In that lawsuit, US District Court Judge Lance E. Walker both ruled that Maine’s law does not contradict the US Constitution and dismissed a claim that the system confuses older and less-educated voters, calling it a questionable inference based on “wobbly demographic data.”
That said, Walker acknowledged that those suing to stop ranked-choice voting are “hardly alone in their view.”
“The debate about whether ranked-choice voting makes sense for Mainers as a method by which to choose their elected representatives," he said, “is likely to continue for some time.”
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.