The argument for a simpler, universal ranked-choice voting system in Maine

Shortly after voters approved ranked-choice voting in 2016, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court opined that it conflicts with the constitutional provision that state election winners be decided “by plurality.” It’s been a major frustration for proponents that ranked-choice can be used only for federal elections.

Sen. David Miramant and other Democratic co-sponsors are spearheading a bill to replace “plurality” with a “majority” provision so the governor and state legislators can be elected by ranked-choice voting. LD 202 was recently approved in a 6-4 vote by the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

But proponents face an uphill challenge gaining consent from two-thirds of both legislative chambers to send a constitutional amendment to the voters. Republicans have steadfastly opposed the move, and their opposition hardened after Bruce Poliquin was edged out of his congressional seat in a 2018 ranked-choice election.

Without a resolution, Maine voters face a prolonged period of pivoting between conventional voting for governor and state House and Senate members and ranked-choice voting for U.S. House, U.S. Senate and president. 

Elected twice with plurality victories, Paul LePage’s polarizing tenure as governor was arguably the catalyst that triggered the campaign for ranked-choice voting. In anticipation of a comeback attempt by LePage against Gov. Janet Mills, the Beacon reported some voters mistakenly believe it would be in a ranked-choice election.

Given the former governor has moved back from Florida for a rerun in 2022, it should be possible for him to compete in the voting system he helped bring about. Accomplishing that for all state offices has a pathway around the constitutional roadblocks and partisan impasse.

A simplified, “two-choice” version of ranked voting could be enacted with only a legislative majority. It would regularize Maine’s elections and be fully constitutional for state offices. It would be easy for voters to understand and use and provides a straightforward, transparent process for counting the vote.

Multiple vote counts is what creates the constitutional conflict. When ranking three (or more) candidates, subsequent choices have to be correlated with ballots from a previous count and then re-tabulated. But with only a first and a second choice, votes can be added directly to a candidate’s total in a single count.

Because all a candidate’s votes are totaled together, there’s no distinction between a “plurality” and a “majority” winner — and thus no conflict with the constitution’s plurality provision.

A two-choice version also complies with the constitution’s requirement that vote counts be completed locally. With more than two rankings, only the initial count can be completed locally. Subsequent counts have to be conducted at the Secretary of State’s office. With two rankings, first and second choices would be tallied locally and reported to the Secretary of State. There’s no need to physically transport ballots to Augusta for final tabulation.

Ranked-voting advocates may say two choices are not enough. Occasionally in a crowded primary, more than two choices might be appropriate. And that’s already in place for federal and state primaries. But partisan general elections rarely have more than three or four viable candidates. Two choices should suffice to convey support to a “preferred” candidate and then to one who is “acceptable” without defaulting to an “unacceptable” candidate.

Consider a typical election with a Democrat, a Republican and one or more independent or minor-party candidates. A voter preferring a particular minor candidate may not care about ranking other minor candidates if the Democrat or the Republican represents an acceptable outcome. And a voter whose preference is a major-party or dominant independent candidate might not care to rank a second candidate.

Critics make the point that ranking multiple candidates can be confusing for some voters. Simplifying the task could ease objections that some voters feel disadvantaged if they don’t rank enough candidates. More voters would likely rank candidates if two were the limit rather than allowing multiple rankings. Ranking the same candidate twice would count as one vote.

A perception of being overly complex was not an insignificant factor in a 2020 Massachusetts referendum that rejected ranked-choice voting. In a time of voter skepticism, casting and counting votes should be as simple and transparent as possible.

The simplified version provides all essential functions voters expect from ranked-choice elections. It records two distinct rankings so the candidates know the intensity of their support and where their added support came from. And it accomplishes what Maine voters seem to want most: eliminating divisive “spoiler” outcomes.

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

About Lee Mortimer

Avatar photoLee Mortimer of Durham, North Carolina, is a long-time election reform advocate. He was co-chair of FairVote/NC and served on a state legislative election laws review commission.

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