Maine Experiments with ‘Extremely Confusing’ Electoral Reform

Tuesday's primary will feature ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank multiple candidates in order of preference

In Tuesday’s Maine primary, voters supporting the losing candidates could still hold the balance of power to shape the final verdict.

That’s because the election will be the state’s first to use a system called ranked-choice voting, in which voters have the ability to register support for more than one candidate. Reformers contend that it gives voters a greater say while ensuring that a candidate without majority support cannot sneak to victory.

But critics argue that it violates the state’s constitution and is overly confusing.

Rob Richie, president and CEO of FairVote.org, suggested that using the system in primaries is more likely to produce the strongest candidates for the general election.

“This rewards the candidate who seeks consensus,” said Richie, whose organization advocates a number of alternative voting methods designed to boost voter participation.

In a traditional election, voters cast ballots for their top choice, and the winner is the candidate with the most votes — even if it’s less than a majority of all votes. Ranked-choice voting simulates a runoff, in which voters return to the polls to select the two candidates who got the most votes from the first round — except that it eliminates the need for a separate election.

It works like this: Voters can cast votes to rank the candidates but not do not have to go beyond their first choices if they do not want to. In the first tabulation, vote-counters look at the first choices of all voters. If no candidate has a majority, the last-place finisher is eliminated, and the second choices of his or her supporters are redistributed to the other candidates.

So in a hypothetical election with four candidates and 20 voters, Candidate A receives seven votes, candidates B and C get five each, and Candidate D receives three. Candidate D is eliminated. Let’s say two of his three voters marked a second choice — one for Candidate A and one for Candidate B. That means that Candidate A now has eight votes, Candidate B has six and Candidate C still has five.

At that point, Candidate C is out of the race. His voters’ second choices — along with the third choices of Candidate D’s voters — are redistributed.

The process continues until one candidate has an outright majority.

Voters approved the system in 2016, but the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued an advisory opinion, at the request of the state Senate, that ranked-choice voting was unconstitutional for governor and state legislative races. Voters on Tuesday will decide whether to adopt the system for federal offices beginning with the general election in November.

If the measure fails, the system will not go into effect until 2021 — and then, only if by that date, voters amend the state constitution to apply it to gubernatorial and state legislative elections.

The state Republican Party lost an effort in federal court last month to block the system but could appeal if voters approve it on Tuesday.

“But beyond that, it is also an extremely confusing voting system that will result in ballots getting thrown in the trashcan, as we’ve seen in Minnesota.”

“However, we are seeing signs that Maine voters are figuring out that they’ve been had by big-money, out-of-state interests trying to force their agenda on us,” party spokesman Garrett Murch told LifeZette.

Murch said the system is difficult to explain to voters and hard for them to understand.

“First and foremost ranked-choice voting violates the Maine constitution, as the Maine Supreme Court told us in an advisory opinion last year,” he said. “But beyond that, it is also an extremely confusing voting system that will result in ballots getting thrown in the trashcan, as we’ve seen in Minnesota.”

Richie said he believes that much of the opposition from Republicans arises from suspicion that it is nothing more than a sour-grapes effort by Democrats to change the rules that allowed Republican Gov. Paul LePage to win two elections without a majority of the vote.

“I’m pretty disappointed with how Republicans are reacting to this … I hope it’s fleeting,” he said. “We’ve found [in other parts of the country] this is not a partisan reaction.”

Richie dismissed concerns that the system is too confusing for voters.

“The evidence is very clear that that’s not true,” he said, pointing to recent elections in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Richie said a higher percentage of ballots for California governor — using a traditional voting method — were invalidated because of over-votes than for San Francisco mayor using ranked-choice voting.

Related: Five Takeaways from Tuesday’s Important Primaries

He said five states that use runoffs employ ranked-choice voting to count the ballots of soldiers and other citizens who are overseas.

And Richie said there is experience even in Maine. The city of Portland uses the system and in 2011, voters had 15 candidates to choose from for mayor. More voters ranked their preferences for at least 10 candidates than voted for only one, he said.

The movement has drawn celerity firepower. Actress Jennifer Lawrence last week made a video urging Maine voters to support the initiative.

“It’s so important to get out and vote ‘yes’ on Question One to protect ranked-choice voting,” she said.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

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PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected].