Voters in Maine have reiterated to their state lawmakers that they'd like to take a different approach to voting in statewide elections. Will it take off elsewhere?
For the June 12 primary, voters in Maine in three races—including the governor's race—weren't asked to just pick a winner. They participated in a process called ranked-choice voting, where they order candidates by preference.
In order to win a ranked-choice race, a candidate needs not just a plurality of the vote, but a majority. Here's how it works: When the initial votes are tallied, if no candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the least number of votes is tossed out, and the ballots are recounted. For those voters who selected the eliminated candidate, the candidate they ranked second is counted as their vote instead. And so it goes until a candidate claims more than 50 percent of the vote. That candidate is then declared the winner.
A handful of American cities use this method for local elections—San Francisco just selected its mayor this way—but Maine is the first state to implement this system for statewide elections. In June's primary, there were enough candidates for the governor's race, a Congressional primary, and for one state lawmaker, to try the ranked-choice model. So last Tuesday, Maine voters who participated in the Democratic primary for governor got to rank seven different candidates in order of preference. Republicans chose from four.
How did it all work out? In the Republican primary for the governor's seat, candidate Shawn Moody pulled in 56 percent in the first round of voting against the three other candidates. In his case, there was no need for additional counting.
But on the Democratic side, it took multiple rounds of candidate elimination for Janet Mills, the state's attorney general, to transcend the 50 percent threshold. Though she was in the lead throughout the tallying process, Mills wasn't named the winner until Wednesday, more than a week after the election.
The state has 20 days to formalize the vote results, so we don't have full numbers yet to compare turnout for this primary to past ones. But we do have partial numbers: 131,300 votes were cast in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, nearly 10,000 more votes than were cast in the 2010 Democratic primary, and double the 65,085 votes cast in the 2014 Democratic primary.
For proponents of ranked-choice voting, those turnout numbers are what matters. The argument for ranked-choice voting over the familiar winner-takes-all system is that it encourages voter participation: you're not "throwing your vote" away by refusing to line up behind the frontrunners.
"It was a very successful election, I'd say," Drew Penrose tells Reason. He's the legal and policy director for FairVote.org, an organization that educates about and encourages the use of ranked-choice voting in the United States. "I think we've come out with a positive sense of momentum."
Maine voters had to fight to get to this point. In 2016, voters approved the implementation of ranked-choice voting with a ballot initiative. But officials resisted. Maine's constitution specifically states that the winner for state-level government races is the candidate with the plurality of the votes. A majority is not required. The state's Supreme Court has advised lawmakers that they need to change the state's constitution. They haven't done so. A judge ruled earlier this year that ranked-choice voting could still be used in primaries.
Instead of amending the constitution, lawmakers have essentially attempted to veto the implementation with a law that would end ranked-choice voting if the constitution is not changed by 2021. So last week, Maine voters also had to vote yet again to keep ranked-choice voting and apply it to U.S. congressional races in the state. Once again, voters gave ranked-choice voting a big thumbs up. It passed again with 54 percent of the vote.
But that doesn't change the state's constitution or resolve the conflict for state government races. So in November, while ranked-choice voting will be used to determine the federal congressional races, it will not be used again to determine who the state's new governor will be, so it won't help the two state's two independent gubernatorial candidates.
Since it will be used in the U.S. Senate race in Maine, however, it will affect the re-election race for Sen. Angus King, himself an independent candidate. There's a bit of irony here in that one of the arguments in favor of ranked-choice voting is that it creates inroads for independent and third-party candidates fighting against entrenched Democrats and Republicans. If more voters prefer a third-party or independent candidate as their second choice, ranked-choice voting gives those candidates better odds of winning than they'd have otherwise.
Even though the ranked-choice vote system could spell his defeat, King is on the record supporting it and said he would vote to keep it in place. In the November election he'll be fending off a Republican, a Democrat, two other independent candidates, and Libertarian Party candidate Chris Lyons. When he was elected to the Senate in 2012, the former governor pulled 52.9 percent of the vote when competing against both a Republican and a Democrat, so the ranked-choice system may not actually be that much of a threat to his incumbency. How King fares in a ranked-choice election should be pretty interesting, particularly if it leads to the Senate's only independent being replaced by a major party candidate.
The League of Women Voters was involved in educating Maine residents about the system and put together an online survey to get a sense of voters' experiences. The organization says that 94 percent of voters ranked multiple candidates, and 90 percent say they found the experience "excellent" or "good." Only four percent had a negative opinion of ranked-choice voting after participating in it.
While FairVote wasn't directly involved on the ground in Maine, that response tracks what Penrose has heard and seen coming out of the election.
"I was monitoring Twitter. I saw people coming out of voting saying, 'I did this, and it's cool,'" Penrose says. "They hear all this stuff. That it's going to be complicated. They hear all these scary things. Then they experience it and go, 'Oh, that's fine.'" He says there was little sign of people having problems with the ballots themselves.
Now eyes will be on the November elections to see if ranked-choice voting leads to better turnout and satisfied voters. Success is going to be important if its advocates want to push this election process into other states.
"If you want more places to adopt it, the best thing is to have more people use it," Penrose says. "I expect to see more interest in it in other states after November."