Maine Voters Tell Lawmakers They Want to Keep Ranking Their Candidates

State's experiment in a different style of voting to continue.


Peter Mautsch / Maranso Gmbh /

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, 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."

NEXT: Huge Win for Everyone With a Cellphone (and for the Fourth Amendment) at the Supreme Court

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  1. Wait until ranking politicians is considered hate speech. And unless and until “None of the Above” gets a line on the ballot, it’s not a true preference poll. Explosive diarrhea, gonorrhea, chronic migraines, diabetes, leprosy – pick your top 3!

    1. What’s ALS, chopped liver?

    2. Right on with “None of the Above”.

      “The Speaker of the House has become President *again*!”

      1. Maybe ‘None of the Above’ should actually be considered a vote for random lottery selection of some other voter.

        1. I’m going to change my name to “None of the Above” and run for office.

          I, Senator None O.T. Above do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

          1. I bet I could at least make it to top two when the special election for President Kamala Harris’s seat comes up in 2020.

    3. The ranked-choice system is still flawed even with a “None of the Above” option simply because it’s possible for everyone’s second choice to be eliminated in the first round. So if 100 people were voting and leprosy or none of the above receives the least number of votes as the #1 choice, potentially zero, it would be eliminated even if all 100 had chosen it as their #2 pick.

      1. A) That’s, shall we say, extremely unlikely.
        B) That’s also a judgement choice that someone who has no top line support is the most deserving candidate.
        C) Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem means you can come up with a scenario for literally any possible system.

        1. Yes, that’s very true it’s highly unlikely but I really think that “None of the Above” could easily be thrown out in the first rounds yet have majority support very quickly in later rounds. That’s especially true in the apparently hyper-partisan world we live in. Speaking personally for the last election, None Above would have been an easy second choice since there’s no way I’d vote D or R. But then again in Cali it’s not like my vote counts anyway especially since the records show I didn’t vote in 2016 even though they gave me a sticker at the polls.

  2. 94 percent of voters ranked multiple candidates, and 90 percent say they found the experience “excellent” or “good.”

    To further improve the experience, enable votes *against* candidates.

    1. Yes! Negative voting.

    2. Imagine how weird things would get if you could vote for nobody.

      1. Since there are plenty of nobodies, I’d imagine it would be pretty hectic.
        And now I know how to get into office. It’ll be short, but I’ll make sure my sex scandal will be saucy, confusing, and very rich with the word “dogwood.”

        1. What, not gonna involve Dagwood? The man’s jaw unhinges like a snake!

          1. Come on Tonys. We all know you don’t need someone whose jaw unhinges like a snake. Don’t exaggerate yourself.

            Unless you’re into vore. In which case, “vorefags ruin everything.”

            1. Considering my asshole does just that, you’re right.

              “vorefags ruin everything.”
              Who are you quoting, faggot? The consensus of mouth-breathing dicksuckers with shit taste?

            2. Look, BUCS, if you’re the president of the United States, and you’re having a freaky-ass sex scandal (or a freaky ass-sex scandal), you want a man whose jaw unhinges like a snake, JUST BECAUSE.

  3. 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.

    What happened to Grampa Commie in Vermont?

    1. If you caucus with the Democrats, and vote like the Democrats, and run for the Democratic presidential nomination, you are a Democrat. No matter what you say. It ain’t gender.

  4. So we can expect recall petitions against all the legislators who refuse to accept the will of the people?

    1. From a quick google search, it does not appear that Maine allows recall elections. Which isn’t surprising, as most don’t.

  5. 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.

    For some even more ironic irony, Scott, the biggest proponents of ranked-choice in Maine are Dems, pissed off that independents torpedoed their gubernatorial candidates in the past two elections.

    1. If irony was cocoa, we’d need a whole lot of mini marshmallows.

  6. For proponents of ranked-choice voting, those turnout numbers are what matters.

    Why is that? These are party primaries – not state elections. Why are they considered state elections?

    Was one of the choices – Why the fuck am I supposed to be paying the cost for internal party business?

    1. For better or worse, states are heavily involved in party primaries for the Democrat and Republican parties. But that’s a sacred unholy cow to slay another day.

  7. I think they should do bikini (Though I prefer one-pieces.) competitions to pick a public official. And yes, the men must where bikinis and high heels too. It’s often said (in a certain dimension) that those who fit well into a bikini are fit to be in office.

  8. It’s Maine. They probably thought they were ranking them on sex appeal.

  9. The point isn’t increased turnout.
    The point isn’t to improve third party chances.
    The point isn’t to increase diversity of elected officials (however you want to define diversity).
    The point is to have the winner best reflect the will of the people. In a multiple candidate, plurality winner race, there is a decent chance that the winner does not reflect the majority. Ranked Choice greatly diminishes the spoiler effect. That is the point, the best way to measure the electorate.

  10. Ranked choice is somewhat risky (maybe not *too* risky, but somewhat risky) to the establishment. It takes away the “throwing your vote away” argument, thus potentially boosting third-party numbers.

    And a bunch of elected officials may as well be nicknamed “Senator Second Choice,” which will be fairly grating.

  11. I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity of approval voting where you simply vote for those whose election wouldn’t make you barf .

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