AUGUSTA — As politicians prepare to face the first-ever congressional election using ranked-choice voting, most admit they have little idea how it will affect results.

Ask a political insider how the new voting system will influence the primary campaigns waged by Democrats seeking Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s seat and the answer is typically a shrug.

“Ranked-choice voting is a great idea,” said Democratic 2nd District hopeful Craig Olson of Islesboro. “But I am no expert, so I am unsure as to how it will affect the primary.”

But the new voting system likely to be in place for the June 12 gubernatorial and congressional primaries is likely to influence the outcome.

Assuming the Secretary of State’s Office certifies signatures handed in recently, the primaries will mark the first time any state has used ranked-choice voting to pick statewide candidates for any office – with one exception.

North Carolina once used ranked-choice for an election to fill a judicial vacancy, a move chosen to avoid a costly runoff race.

Not even political scientists have much data as they analyze possible consequences.

Drew Spencer Penrose, law and policy director for the Maryland-based FairVote, said there has been some research on ranked-choice voting in municipal elections.

Research suggests ranked-choice leads to “measurably more civil campaigns,” he said. Candidates still have to differentiate themselves from one another, but they do it by citing positive ideas rather than going negative, he said.

It also appears that candidates in ranked-choice races put more effort into direct contact with voters and recruiting volunteers and rely less on radio and television spots, Penrose said.

Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat who’s running for Congress, said he doesn’t believe it will matter much one way or another. But, he said, he sees “a lot of enthusiasm” among voters for it.

Golden said he plans to keep trying to build coalitions and press for a majority of the vote. He said there is “a good chance” ranked-choice voting may help him get there.

Congressional hopeful Tim Rich, a Bar Harbor cafe owner, said he sees a possible dark side to the new process.

Rich said the new system may encourage candidates “to be less honest and/or genuinely themselves because everyone is vying to make sure they are at least a second choice and, therefore, don’t want to make anyone angry, even if they disagree. It incentivizes bland and generic candidates.”

It might also discourage candidates from taking stands that differ from a party’s platform, he said, even if they think it is wrong.

Candidate Jonathan Fulford, a Monroe builder, thinks ranked-choice voting will prove an advantage for him.

He said people tend to vote geographically in a primary – picking a local favorite first – so somebody with a strong grass-roots campaign across the entire sprawling, mostly rural district could wind up as the second choice of many. Fulford hopes that will work to his advantage.

In years past, voting in any particular race was pretty simple: Pick somebody to win and hope they do.

In the June primaries, though, voters are likely to have the opportunity to indicate their favorite candidate and then rank the rest of them in descending order.

That would mean each voter would rank the five Democrats from best to worst.

Under the ranked-choice system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no one has more than 50 percent of the vote after the first count, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters who chose the eliminated candidate would have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidates, and the ballots would be retabulated. The process continues until one candidate has a clear majority and is declared the winner.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting, which Mainers approved in a 2016 referendum, said the new voting system will encourage voters to pick the candidate they genuinely like best, ensure that everyone’s vote matters, provide more choices and discourage negative campaigning, since all of the contenders have good reason to treat competitors gently so they do not wind up as the last choice of many voters.

David Farmer, a political and media consultant in Portland who is working with congressional candidate Lucas St. Clair, said it is difficult to predict how ranked-choice voting will affect the primary.

“Democratic voters are highly engaged this cycle,” he said, and focused on the need to defeat Poliquin, a two-term incumbent, when the Nov. 6 general election rolls around.

Farmer said he is “not sure that ranked-choice voting will change the way the candidates treat one another, which has been very respectful so far, or conduct themselves.”

But one certainty, he said, “is that all of the campaigns will need to add an element to their voter outreach plans to ensure voters have good information on the new process and how it works.”

“Regardless of whether it helps or hurts any particular candidates,” Farmer said, “voters have made it pretty clear that they want to give ranked-choice voting a chance.”

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