Maine's Ranked-Choice Initiative's Fate in Hands of Undecided Voters

Today in votes that are actually about future votes


Molly Riley/UPI/Newscom

When 20 percent of the voters are undecided about your ballot initiative less than two weeks before the vote, definitely be concerned.

That's what the proponents of Maine's Question 5, which institutes "ranked-choice" voting in statewide and lawmaker elections there, are facing. The most recent poll from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center shows a yes vote ahead at 49 percent. That sounds very good, at first. The problem, though, is that a full 20 percent of polled voters say they're undecided. Compare that to Maine's marijuana legalization ballot initiative, where only nine percent of voters are undecided (and that one may still be a nailbiter).

It's certainly a complex, complicated proposal for voters to consider. Ranked-choice voting asks voters to order their candidates by preference, not just pick a single vote. Who is your first choice? Who is your second choice? And so on, in races where there are more than two candidates. In order to win a ranked choice race, the top candidate must earn a majority of the votes cast. If he or she only has a plurality in the first round, the candidate with the least amount of votes is tossed from the race. The ballots are then counted again, but in situations where voters selected the least popular candidate as their first choice, their second choice is now counted. This all goes on until a candidate gets a majority of the vote, which may not actually be the same person who won the first round.

A handful of cities in the U.S. use ranked choice, but no states, so Maine would be treading new ground. As should be obvious, this ranked-choice system has the potential to benefit both third-party candidates and those who are seen as more "moderate" (for whatever that definition means in the eyes of voters). It should not come as a surprise then to see those who feel left out of the current political environment in Maine supporting it and those who have benefited from the status quo opposing it. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (he with the binder full of drug dealers) is opposed and argues it may be unconstitutional. The state's constitution currently calls for a plurality to be declare the winner. LePage himself did not get a majority vote.

Ranked choice voting itself is far from perfect—one possibly bad outcome is that the ultimate winner himself didn't actually get a majority of votes cast because voters are under no obligation to rank all choices. So the ballot of a voter who selected only a candidate that performed poorly will end up getting tossed. And as some citizens who live in the cities that have ranked-choice local votes can tell you, it's only as good as the candidates. Nevertheless, it's a chance for voters to assert a little more control over their choices. If it wins, it will be interesting to see if it actually improves voter turnout in that state.

I asked Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, if he was concerned about the extremely high undecided numbers in the last poll. Bailey responded (via email) that the poll was taken only a couple of days after the proponents had started their ad blitz. They've been running television ads for the past three weeks. Bailey also noted that the poll didn't indicate how the undecided voters were currently leaning.

I'll also be keeping an eye on California's race for U.S. Senate to see the ultimate example of how different types of vote systems can go wrong. California voters have been left with two Democrats (and nobody else) to choose from, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez. That's due to California's top-two primary system, enacted (by voters) a few years ago. This is the first Senate race where we've seen it come into play. California has an open primary where voters can choose from a whole slate of Democrats, Republicans, and even third-party possibilities like Libertarians and others. But only the top two choices get on the fall ballot, no matter which party they're from. This means that really the primary vote is actually more important than the November vote. And that's a problem, because primary vote turnout is much lower. There's been reporting that some are saying they're less inclined to actually vote for either candidate in this race. I'll be keeping an eye out to see whether there's a significant difference in the number of Californians who vote for president but not for a senator (full disclosure: that's exactly what I did).

South Dakota, by the way, is considering implementing a top-two election system that would also be non-partisan, stripping party affiliations off the ballot. Such a system has managed to get support even from some independent politicians, who seem to think that this will increase their chances. Given that South Dakota has a much smaller population than California, I imagine it's possible. But South Dakotans should look at California's Senate race right now and see if that's truly what they want.

In addition, there's a referendum before South Dakotans to decide whether to keep Senate Bill 69. This is a law reforming some election rules in the state. One of the rules this law implements is that a person who is a registered member of a political party may not sign a nominating petition for an independent candidate. That rule strikes me as wholly unconstitutional, but I will admit to not being terribly familiar with court precedents on the intersection of free speech and voting rights and election petition procedures. Voting no would strike the law down.