Maine experiments with ranked-choice voting
Moody wins GOP gubernatorial primary; Dem race up in air
Shawn Moody won the Republican nomination for governor of Maine on Tuesday, but he won’t know his Democratic opponent for several more days because of a new ranked-choice voting system that changes the way winners are selected.
In most states, the candidate with the most votes is declared the winner in a primary or general election. With ranked-choice voting, the winner must garner a majority – not just a plurality – of the votes.
Moody easily cleared that hurdle, landing 57 percent of Republican primary votes. But on the Democratic side no candidate won a clear majority (Janet Mills was tops with 32 percent), so the last-place finisher (Donna Dion, according to the latest returns) will be dropped from the race and the votes of her supporters will be parceled out to the candidate who they ranked second. The winnowing process, which could take as long as a week, will continue until one candidate wins a clear majority.
Maine is the first state to try ranked-choice voting, although several cities, including Cambridge, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, also use it. So do Australia and the Oscars. A group of Massachusetts residents calling themselves Voter Choice Massachusetts is hoping to put a question adopting ranked-choice on the ballot in 2020.
The upshot of all the legal and political maneuvering is that ranked-choice voting will continue in Maine for all primaries and federal, but not state, general elections. Ranked-choice voting could be expanded to all state elections if the Maine constitution is amended.
Much of the impetus for ranked-choice voting in Maine stemmed from the election victories of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a polarizing politician who won with 48.2 percent of the vote in a three-way race in 2014 and 37.6 percent of the vote in a four-way race in 2010. Nine of the last 11 governors in Maine were elected with less than 50 percent of the vote.
The argument for ranked-choice voting has attraction in a state like Massachusetts where Democrats dominate and seats tend to open up only when officeholders run for higher office or die. Paul Schimek, in a 2017 analysis for CommonWealth, highlighted race after race in Massachusetts where a Democrat won a crowded primary with a small percentage of the vote, beat the Republican in the general election, and then used the power of incumbency to hold on to the seat. “These elections all failed a basic test of democracy: respecting the will of the majority,” wrote Schimek.
This year’s race in the Third Congressional District may follow a similar pattern. The Democratic primary has more than 10 candidates and someone is likely to win with a tiny percentage of the vote.
Backers of ranked-choice say it gives give voters a greater voice in elections, eliminates spoiler candidates, and forces candidates to appeal to a wider constituency. In Australia, the need for candidates to garner widespread support from the backers of rivals has diminished negative campaigning, but there was little evidence of that in the Maine primaries.The biggest concern, that voters would be confused by the requirement that they rank each candidate rather than vote for just one, appeared to be unfounded.
“I think it’s remarkably easy,” Patricia Darling-Pena of Bangor told Maine Public Radio. “I think a leaflet in the mail could easily explain it for everyone.”