An Alaska court ruling could open door for expanding ranked-choice voting in Maine

In a decision last week, the Alaska Supreme Court explained the reasoning behind an earlier ruling that the state’s ranked-choice voting system is indeed constitutional while criticizing a 2017 Maine court’s decision that led to RCV being scaled back here. Advocates of the system say that the Alaska opinion could potentially be used to reexamine whether ranked-choice voting can take place in all elections in Maine rather than only in certain contests.  

RCV allows voters to rank candidates on their ballot in order of preference in races with more than two contenders. If a candidate gets over 50% in the initial vote count, they are victorious. If not, the last place candidate is eliminated and their supporters’ votes are redistributed to a second choice. 

Following elections in 2010 and 2014 in which former Gov. Paul LePage won the Blaine House without garnering a majority of the vote, Mainers approved a ballot initiative in 2016 to put ranked-choice voting in place for gubernatorial, legislative and federal elections.  

However, the new law almost immediately came under legal scrutiny. In response to a question from the Republican-controlled state Senate in 2017 about the legality of ranked-choice voting, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in May of that year issued an advisory opinion in which they unanimously said the system was unconstitutional in general elections. The court cited a constitutional provision in Maine that declares the person with the most votes (a plurality) the winner, even if that candidate doesn’t receive a majority.  

In response, the legislature passed a law later in 2017 to delay implementation of ranked-choice voting until 2021 and repeal it if a constitutional amendment to codify the system wasn’t passed by that time. 

However, voters responded by approving a people’s veto in 2018 overturning the legislature, which had the effect of implementing ranked-choice voting in Maine for federal primary elections and general elections as well as primary contests for governor and state legislature. Gubernatorial and legislative general elections, however, were not made part of the ranked-choice voting system in accordance with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s interpretation of the constitution. That system of using ranked-choice voting in some races but not others is where things stand in Maine currently. 

Alaska judges ‘unconvinced’ by Maine court’s RCV ruling

However, deep into their 57-page decision last week in favor of ranked-choice voting in Alaska, that state’s high court argued the 2017 ruling in Maine against ranked-choice voting in state general elections was flawed. 

The Alaska court notes that judges in Maine found ranked-choice voting objectionable because a section of the Maine Constitution stipulates that the winner of an election is the candidate with a plurality (even if the candidate doesn’t win an outright majority of votes). 

Ranked-choice voting, by its nature, means the candidate with the plurality after the first round of votes is tabulated is not necessarily the winner (unless they have a majority). As a result, the Maine court ruled that ranked-choice voting was in violation of the constitution. 

The Alaska Supreme Court did not find that argument persuasive, though. The Alaska judges write that the Maine court failed to explain why the state’s constitution requires an election to be over after just one round of vote tabulation.

The court writes that if, as is often the case under ranked-choice voting, “The vote count is not final after the first round of tabulation, then the candidate in first place after the first round is not necessarily the candidate ‘receiving the greatest number of votes.’ Instead that candidate is simply the candidate in the lead before the votes have been fully counted.”

“The Maine Supreme Judicial Court treated the result obtained after the first round of counting as if it were final, without pointing to any text in its constitution that requires votes to be counted in that way or that limits the way a vote can be cast or expressed,” the court writes.

The Maine court’s “failure to pinpoint constitutional text, structure, or policies inconsistent with ranked-choice voting leaves us unconvinced by its analysis,” the Alaska Supreme Court adds. 

Future of RCV in Maine

While the ruling in Alaska doesn’t change anything about Maine’s ranked-choice voting law as currently constructed, John Brautigam, legal counsel for Democracy Maine and an advocate of RCV, said it is “inevitably going to lead to more discussion in Maine about revisiting this issue.” 

If the constitutional question in Maine around plurality could be resolved using the Alaska court’s reasoning that the candidate with the most votes once all rounds of tabulation are complete would indeed win under a ranked-choice voting system, “There may be an open door toward revisiting this and going back to 2016” when voters approved RCV for all elections, including gubernatorial and legislative contests. 

Brautigam said the Alaska court’s reasoning is similar to arguments that democracy advocates in Maine have tried to make to apply ranked-choice voting to all elections. 

“We think, conceptually, that is a strong argument,” he said. 

Brautigam added that while Maine’s current method of using ranked-choice voting in some elections has worked well and that voters and candidates have adjusted to the system, he believes the state will one day have RCV up and down the ballot. 

“I do think the Alaska opinion gives a reason to revisit the issue, and if that’s not persuasive enough, then I just think the public will more and more become comfortable with it and begin to expect it,” he said. “I expect it to be more and more ingrained over time and that the resistance to it will fade away.”

However, Matt Dunlap, who served as Maine’s secretary of state during the fight over RCV, didn’t quite agree with the Alaska court’s analysis. Dunlap noted that the Alaska judges focused on rounds of voting whereas the Maine court in 2017 focused more narrowly on the issue of plurality. Dunlap added that Maine and Alaska have different election constructions. 

Still, Dunlap did agree that the use of RCV in Maine could expand in the future, although he acknowledged that one challenge is that the Republican Party “sees ranked-choice voting as an existential threat.” Dunlap cited the 2018 U.S. House election in which Democrat Jared Golden defeated Republican Bruce Poliquin in a ranked-choice voting contest, with Poliquin filing multiple lawsuits trying to overturn the use of the voting system. If Republicans win control of the legislature and the Blaine House, they will very likely attempt to repeal ranked-choice voting in the state, Dunlap said. 

But in the long-run, he believes RCV will be used in all Maine elections at some point. 

“Especially if Republicans win an election using RCV, I think eventually it will be used for all general elections as well as all primaries,” Dunlap said.  

Photo: A yard sign against a ballot effort to dismantle Maine’s ranked-choice voting system | Beacon

About Evan Popp

Avatar photoEvan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at evan(at)

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