Will Maine Lead a New Election Model for the Nation?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Ranked-choice voting could give you more reasons to show up on Election Day.
By Nick Fouriezos
Maine is one of the most competitive election battlegrounds in the nation. Its Senate race could determine control of the nation’s upper legislative chamber. Susan Collins, the endangered GOP incumbent, would have set a state record by raising $8.3 million in the last three months … if not for her opponent, Democrat Sara Gideon, raising $39.4 million in the same time period. And while the presidential race isn’t so competitive statewide — Joe Biden is leading by an average of 11 points — it’s heated in the Maine 2nd Congressional District, which awards one Electoral College vote and could be the key to a Donald Trump turnaround.
But there’s another reason the outcome of these Maine elections could influence the U.S. for decades. In November, Maine is set to become the first American state to use ranked-choice voting in a presidential election, and other states are already queueing up to learn from its lessons.
Voters in Maine will be able to list the candidates for each statewide and federal office in order of preference on their ballot. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote initially, then the voters’ second picks are considered (and then the third, fourth, etc.) until a majority winner is chosen. Advocates believe the system is more democratic, better reflects the will of voters and allows independent candidates to stand a fighting chance. Opponents argue it violates the spirit behind the concept of “one person, one vote” and may confuse people at the polls.
Regardless, ranked choice ensures there is no such thing as a “wasted” vote in Maine. And the concept is increasingly gaining in popularity nationwide, as other states look to Maine, whose voters approved the system for all federal and state elections in 2016. Both Alaska and Massachusetts will vote in November to decide on whether to adopt ranked-choice voting for the future. Utah and Virginia have passed legislation allowing local governments to use ranked-choice voting since Maine went forward four years ago. And 21 states, plus the District of Columbia, considered some form of ranked-choice legislation in 2020 — showing that ranked choice is likely to spread in the near future.
You are already seeing ranked-choice supporters using Maine’s example as a reason to adopt it in other places, and I think that momentum will only increase.
Mark Brewer, political scientist, University of Maine
“I think it’s here to stay in Maine,” says Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine, no small feat considering the ranked-choice system was challenged in state courts and by the state GOP over the past four years. Brewer is no ranked-choice fanboy — in fact, he testified to the state legislature that he was worried it was potentially unconstitutional and might confuse voters. Still, Brewer admits that his fear about the ballot being confusing “doesn’t appear to be that big of a deal,” adding that Mainers have found it mostly popular, “and my guess is it would be popular in other areas too.”
“You are already seeing ranked-choice supporters using Maine’s example as a reason to adopt it in other places, and I think that momentum will only increase regardless of how it plays out in this particular race,” Brewer says.
That’s true in neighboring New Hampshire, where Ellen Read, a Democratic state representative, brought forward a bill in January suggesting a new ranked-choice system similar to Maine’s. While it stalled in committee this year, Read expects it to be considered again in 2021. “It is the highest-resolution picture of what the will of the voter is,” she says. Tiani Coleman, a former Republican Party chair in Salt Lake City — who now lives in New Hampshire and also supports ranked choice — described it to OZY as upholding “the will of the majority without trampling on the voice or rights of the minority.”
Still, only Maine will be able to directly test its effects on a statewide and federal election level in 2020. The biggest threat to ranked choice being adopted more broadly would be if it becomes seen as a partisan issue. That could very well happen in the Senate race, where Gideon leads Collins by just about 4 percent, with two independent candidates also in the race. Republicans are likely to complain if voters backing those independents — former Green Party standard-bearer Lisa Savage and self-funded Trump supporter Max Linn — end up putting Gideon over the edge on a second count. In the presidential contest, there are three other candidates on the ballot apart from Trump and Biden: Howie Hawkins of the Green Party, Jo Jorgensen of the Libertarian Party and Roque De La Fuente of the Alliance Party.
In fact, Republicans are still bitter after the ranked-choice system helped Democrat Jared Golden prevail in 2018 over incumbent Rep. Bruce Poliquin in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Poliquin (who led the initial vote by about 2,000 votes but ended up losing by around 3,000) called it “a scam” when asked about it recently, arguing that it attracted “single issue” voters and “candidates who can never win, know they can’t win, and are in it to harvest votes” — in his view, in a way that favors Democrats.
However, Brewer, the political scientist, disagrees. “Ranked-choice voting most certainly isn’t inherently beneficial to Democrats or Republicans,” he says. In fact, President Trump could have benefited from it in 2016, when he lost the state by 3 percentage points to Hillary Clinton — less than the 5 percent of the vote that the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson got.
Republicans can run more conservative candidates too if they think having additional left-wing options are bringing more Democrats out to vote. Regardless, it’s clear many voters want more options and better choices at the polls. That preference is being voiced across the nation, everywhere from the northern tip of Maine to the southern edge of the Appalachian Trail, where one undecided Georgia voter recently told OZY that he wished the Peach State would follow suit. “That way you get people running who are not just people who appeal to a very hardcore minority who are able to shout out the rest,” he said. Will America listen to voters like him? The answer could depend on how Maine fares in 2020.