Election 2018

Maine's Primary a Pioneering Experiment in Ranked-Choice Voting

Voters participate in first use of a candidate rating system for state races in the U.S.


Ranked vote
Peter Mautsch / Maranso Gmbh

Keep an eye on Maine's gubernatorial primary today not to see who wins (because we might not actually have a winner declared this evening) but to see how the winners are selected.

Today's primary marks the launch of Maine's use of ranked-choice voting for determining the winners of several state-level elected offices. It will be used to decide which Democrat and which Republican will face off in November (along with several independent and third-party candidates).

In ranked-choice voting, rather than just picking a single winner, voters can rank their preferences. In order to win a ranked-choice vote, the top candidate must get a majority of the vote among all the candidates. Getting a plurality is not enough—it has to be more than 50 percent. If no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the least votes is ejected. Then the votes are tallied again, but the votes from those who went to the ejected candidate now go to their second-ranked choice. And so it goes until one candidate claims more than 50 percent of the vote. That candidate is the winner.

There are four Republicans and seven Democrats duking it out for the governor's race (incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage is getting term-limited out), so determining the outcome may get pretty complex.

A handful of cities use ranked-choice voting for local elections (San Francisco just used it to determine its mayor). Maine is the first place to implement it for state races. In addition to the governor's race, one congressional primary on the Democratic side and one state lawmaker race on the Republican side have enough candidates to call for ranked-choice voting.

Voters approved ranked-choice voting in a ballot initiative in 2016, but there's been a fight with state Republicans over implementing it (LePage didn't get a majority vote in either of his elections). The state Constitution specifically requires only a plurality of the vote to determine the winner. The state's Supreme Judicial Court warned in an advisory opinion that a constitutional amendment would be necessary or the outcomes of ranked-choice voting could potentially lose a court challenge. There have been both legal and legislative fights. A judge ruled in March to allow ranked-choice voting for this primary, but its future in Maine is still muddled. To try to resolve the conflict, also on the ballot today in Maine is an initiative that would overrule a lawmaker's attempt to delay implementation of ranked-choice voting and potentially repeal it if the state's constitution is not amended. So essentially Maine voters today have to also approve ranked-choice voting again or potentially lose it.

The case for ranked-choice voting is that it's an alternative to our more common winner-takes-all system that sometimes pushes voters to feel like they have no choice but to support the two major parties or discourages them from voting entirely. It encourages third-party and independent votes because you're no longer "throwing your vote away" by voting Libertarian, or Green, or any other party. You can rank a Libertarian Party candidate first, then pick a Democrat or a Republican that comes closest to your belief system as your second choice. If the Libertarian Party candidate performs poorly, your vote wasn't a wasted effort. It also means that if lots of people rank a Libertarian candidate as their second choice behind a Democrat or a Republican but the major party candidate doesn't get a majority of the vote, the Libertarian has a better chance of coming out on top than he or she would ever have had in a traditional election.

So ranked-choice voting is popular among those who want to encourage alternatives in races and to break the stranglehold by the two major parties and by those with the most party influence. The Washington Post interviewed a taxi driver in Maine who thinks LePage would never have been elected governor in the first place if the state had ranked-choice voting.

The Washington Post notes that the Republican candidates are still resisting ranked-choice while the Democrats are embracing it (two Democratic candidates are collaborating and encouraging voters to select them both, similar to what happened in San Francisco's mayoral race). The Republican Party in Maine says it thinks ranked-choice voting is "confusing" and will lead to lower voter turnout.

The data doesn't back them up there. FairVote, an organization devoted to pushing ranked-choice voting, observes:

Voter turnout in cities that have adopted RCV is comparable to, and often higher than, turnout in other cities. In elections using RCV in the Bay Area in 2014, voter turnout decline was less than in other parts of the state and voter turnout was generally higher than past non-RCV elections.

Professor David Kimball, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has studied voter turnout under RCV. His study finds that RCV in American local elections has a limited impact on turnout, with more important influences on turnout including a competitive mayoral election, other races on the ballot (including initiatives) and the use of even year elections. However, Professor Kimball's study shows that, when compared to the primary and runoff elections they replace, RCV general elections are associated with a 10 point increase in voter turnout.

California's overall voter turnout in last week's primary election was miserable. It's not finalized as yet, but the current participation rate based on county reporting is a mere 27 percent of all registered voters. But in San Francisco County, the participation rate jumps all the way up to 48 percent. Only a couple of other counties had a higher participation rate, and some of them are lightly populated areas like Sierra County that have a tiny pool of voters.

Ultimately, once Maine votes today, the question will be whether voters turn up and whether they're satisfied with the outcome, even if their preferred initial candidate lost.

An update on the ranked-choice mayoral race in San Francisco: Last week it appeared that ranked-choice voting may lead to the candidate who came in second in the first round of votes, Mark Leno, overtaking frontrunner London Breed as the lower-ranking candidates were eliminated. Now that more votes have been tallied, however, Breed has retaken the lead from Leno. But her lead is only 1,600 votes and there are still more than 17,000 ballots to tally.