Voters in this June’s primary election will likely take part in a huge experiment, if the novel system of ranked-choice voting is used here in state elections for the first time.
First approved by Maine voters in a 2016 referendum, RCV could yield some surprising results, and the candidate who gets the most votes in the first round of counting may not prevail in the end.
RCV backers have apparently gathered enough petition signatures to re-install the system in this year’s primary election, by mounting a “people’s veto” effort that could likely negate the Legislature’s action last year that stalled RCV. While these signatures are still being verified by the secretary of state’s office, if the petition drive is successful, RCV would be used for the June primary in all state and federal elections.
In RCV, used in some municipalities, but not in any other statewide elections, voters rank candidates in order of preference. The results are tabulated in successive rounds, with last place candidates eliminated and their second-place votes redistributed, until one candidate achieves a majority.
That system, intended to increase voters’ influence on a multi-candidate election process, produces a winner with broad support and avoids spoiler candidates. It was stalled by the Legislature after Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled it unconstitutional in state general elections. (Maine’s Constitution currently requires only a plurality, not a majority, in these elections.)
But the court did not rule on its impact on the primary election, and backers have brought a second petition drive that would void the Legislature’s action and install RCV in the primary. June voters will also be asked if they want to use ranked-choice voting in the future. If that passes, it will be used in the federal elections in the fall, although not in the statewide elections.
So, venturing into the hypothetical, we will see how the primary using RCV might play among the 12 already announced Democratic candidates for governor. With so many candidates, no candidate is likely to win a majority when votes are counted in the first round. But if several candidates garner in the 30 percent range, the race will likely be decided in a second, or even later round.
To spin one scenario, let’s say that Attorney General Janet Mills is the top vote-getter with 28 percent in the Democratic primary vote: Not enough for a first-round victory.
But hypothetical second-place finisher Adam Cote, a Springvale lawyer campaigning on his military background and outsider status, gets a close 25 percent in the first round. Former Speaker of the House Mark Eves gets 23 percent, and the rest of the pack are far behind.
At this point, the voters whose candidates did the worst in the first round get an outsized role in the process. The last-place candidate is eliminated, and his or her second-place votes are distributed to those remaining candidates. And so on until one candidate has more than 50 percent as a result of collecting down-ballot votes from the losing candidates.
In this example, if the lion’s share of redistributed votes go to Mark Eves, he could win the primary, despite being third in the first round. Voters’ second- and third-place choices will have an outsized impact on the outcome.
If you don’t fully understand or like this process, don’t worry, because you won’t be using it in the election for governor in November. Because of the constitutional issues, the general election for state offices will be decided by plurality. And that means that Maine could repeat the same scenario that RCV was intended to prevent: With two well-known independent candidates in the race – Terry Hayes and Alan Caron – Maine’s next governor could easily be elected with only 35 or 40 percent of the vote, as in recent elections.
This scenario likely improves the chances for a Republican victory in November, if the Democrat splits the liberal vote with two independents, and a Republican possibly gains a November victory by gathering votes in the largely rural, still Trump-friendly 2nd Congressional District.
Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.