Maine voters recently got the legal go-ahead to try a novel, first-in-the-nation statewide ballot experiment that advocates say could curb growing levels of extreme partisanship. The problem? Voters have only a few weeks to learn how to use the complex system before primary day.
The initiative, known as ranked-choice voting, allows voters to rank up to three candidates, in order of preference, when marking their ballots (imagine marking the first choice with a 1, second choice with a 2, and so on). If no candidate receives 50 percent of first-choice votes, then the bottom candidate is eliminated, with his or her votes reallocated to the second choice. At that point, if no candidate gets 50 percent, the process repeats until a candidate receives a majority.
The idea is to make sure that the winner is generally the consensus pick and not someone who received, say, 35 percent of the vote. That minimizes the glaring partisanship that has marked hundreds of races in recent years.
Many local communities — from Cambridge to St. Paul to Santa Fe — have used ranked-choice voting in local elections, but no state had ever adopted it for use in statewide elections and for Congress, until Maine’s recent court decision. Last month, Amherst became the second municipality in Massachusetts to approve it.
Portland, Maine’s largest city, has used ranked-choice voting in its past two municipal elections, but the Maine Legislature has largely dismissed statewide proposals because of constitutional questions. However, in 2016 the idea was put to voters in a statewide referendum, and it passed. Since then, the issue was tangled in the court system — even the Maine Supreme Court issued a nonbinding opinion saying the new law was at least partially unconstitutional. That’s because Maine’s Constitution explicitly states that a candidate needs only a plurality of votes (meaning more than any other candidate), and not a majority of votes, to win an election.
But a Kennebec County Superior Court judge ordered Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap this month to reconfigure primary ballots to use the ranked-choice system.
Now that ranked choice is a go in Maine, the complications begin.
First, there is the matter of explaining to voters how the process will work. Maine’s secretary of state’s office says it will begin an education campaign, especially on social media.
But how this plays out in the polling booth on primary day could bring a lot of confusion. Alone in the booth, voters may get lost trying to navigate the new ballots.
There could be even more problems after a winner is announced. It is easy to see how a loser in any given race would have grounds to file a lawsuit on a constitutional basis. After all, a candidate could have a plurality in the first round of tabulation, but not when votes are reallocated. Add to that the fact that Maine’s Constitution requires that a winner have only a plurality, and the legal challenges could be significant. A ruling that invalidates all primary results could throw the state into political chaos.
It’s also worth mentioning that ranked-choice voting could have a uniquely large impact in Maine. The governor’s race is the most significant race on the ballot there and features the largest field: four Republicans and seven Democrats on their respective party primary ballots. With such a large number of candidates, there is no obvious front-runner, and no one candidate is expected to receive 50 percent of the vote, at least not at first.
In theory, the new system will create an incentive for candidates to stake out middle ground, or at least an inclusive approach that would help them to become voters’ natural second or third choice.
But just when you thought you’d grasped the concept here, allow us to add a twist. The primary ballot will also contain a single ballot question. Why should you care? It asks whether this new ranked-choice voting system should be delayed for a few more years, to give the Legislature more time to address constitutional questions. If it passes, you can forget even worrying about ranked choice in the general election.
That matters because Maine has a strong history of independent candidates challenging both major parties, which makes for an even more complicated voting process. For example, incumbent Republican Paul LePage was first elected with less than 38 percent of the vote and reelected without a majority.
It’s hard to imagine how those races would have played out in this new system.
This year, we may find out. As often happens, several races will have three strong candidates in the general election.
In the governor’s race, Democrat-turned-independent State Treasurer Terry Hayes is running a credible campaign. And then of course incumbent US Senator Angus King is up for reelection, facing both a Democrat and a Republican. Already that means that ranked choice could have an impact in both statewide races in Maine.
Primary day is June 12. That’s not so far away when you consider all that Maine has to do to educate voters.