After being approved in two statewide referendums, ranked-choice voting was successfully used twice in Maine last year: in the June gubernatorial and congressional primaries and the November general election for U.S. Senate and U.S. House.

Proponents are anxious to expand its use for more elections. Dozens of enthusiastic backers attended a legislative hearing last month to support a bill that would extend the system to Maine presidential elections.

With support in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, ranked-choice voting for all federal elections in Maine could soon be a reality.

But what of general elections for state office, particularly the race for governor, which saw Paul LePage elected twice with less than a majority of the vote? His polarizing tenure as governor was arguably the catalyst that brought ranked-choice voting to Maine.

Another legislative hearing, which took place last week, drew scant attention and little indication that ranked-choice voting in general elections for governor or state Legislature will be in place any time soon.

The system allows voters to rank their choices, and in subsequent rounds of counting, lower-polling candidates are eliminated until a majority winner emerges. But it conflicts with the Maine Constitution, which says winners of general elections for state office are decided by a plurality of the vote.

Amending the constitution to allow ranked-choice voting requires approval from two-thirds of both legislative chambers before an amendment can be sent to the voters. Though Democrats hold commanding majorities, some Republican support would be needed. And opposition has only hardened since Republican Bruce Poliquin lost his congressional seat in the 2018 ranked-choice election.

In October 2017, the Press Herald published a guest column I’d written outlining a simplified version of ranked-choice voting that satisfies all existing constitutional questions and can be used for all of Maine’s elections. Unfortunately, the timing could not have been worse for an alternative proposal.

The op-ed ran on a Friday, and that Monday the Legislature pushed through what appeared to be a pre-planned overturning of the 2016 referendum that approved ranked-choice voting. The legislators’ surprise move triggered a “people’s veto” referendum that ended in reinstating ranked-choice voting for primaries and all congressional elections – but leaving out general elections for state office.

If proponents want ranked-choice voting for all elections for state office, a pathway exists that does not require amending the constitution over determined Republican opposition. A “two-choice” version that is fully constitutional can be implemented with minimal changes to voting equipment and at minimal new expense.

Multiple vote counts are what create the constitutional conflict. When ranking three (or more) candidates, subsequent choices have to be correlated with ballots from a previous count. But if there were only a first and a second choice, votes could be added directly to a candidate’s total and tabulated in a single count.

With no distinction between a “plurality” winner in the initial count and a “majority” winner in a subsequent count, there is no conflict with the constitution’s “plurality” provision.

A two-choice method also complies with the state constitution’s requirement that vote counts be completed locally. With more than two rankings, only the initial count can be completed locally. Subsequent counts and a final tabulation have to be completed at the Secretary of State’s Office.

Ranked-choice literalists might say two choices are not enough. But in Maine elections, two choices should generally suffice to convey support to a preferred candidate and then to one who is acceptable, without defaulting to a candidate the voter finds unacceptable. Voters casting a vote out of principle for someone they believe can’t win would most likely cast their second vote for the candidate they could accept.

An illustration might be an election featuring Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. Johnson and Stein supporters might give their second vote to Romney or Obama. Some Romney and Obama supporters might give their second vote to Johnson or Stein. But voters could not cast a second vote for the same candidate.

The simplified version provides all the 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.


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