Part of the allure of the new ranked-choice voting system that is being tried out in the June 12 primary election was the notion that candidates would be nice to each other.
But that has not happened, and the prospect of ranked-choice voting in the Democrat and Republican primaries has not prevented the crescendo of silly negative advertising, and campaigns that have focused on attacks, not issues.
The ranked-choice voting system that will be used for the first time allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference; losing candidates are eliminated in successive rounds of vote counting. Their second-place votes are redistributed until a winner emerges with a majority.
Its backers said RCV would promote civility between candidates. But it has not stopped negative advertising, with television campaigns of both parties going negative, focused on issues like purity of party membership. And several Democrats have banded together to attack supposed front-runner Janet Mills, highlighting at every opportunity her “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association from as far back as 2004, and the legal cases she has brought as attorney general regarding Maine’s Indian tribes.
Mills, for her part, went after opponent Adam Cote in a disappointing and silly ad that attacked him for being registered as a Republican for quite a few years, initially in order to cast a primary vote. (He registered as a Democrat two years before running for Congress in 2008.) This drew a response ad from Cote, repeating his attacks on her NRA record.
The NRA has now given all the Democratic candidates an F grade, confirming that there is very little daylight between the candidates on this issue that this has mainly served as a cudgel against Mills.
Nor is there much difference between the four Republican candidates on the issues. They all worship the Second Amendment and want to limit Medicaid expansion. So they have attacked their opponents on their history of Republican party membership.
The apparent Republican front-runner, auto body shop entrepreneur Shawn Moody, backed by the LePage family, joined the party in October after having run for governor as an independent in 2010. This has led to attacks from Garrett Mason, the current Senate majority leader, who also targeted Mary Mayhew, the former DHHS commissioner.
Mayhew worked for a Democratic candidate for Senate, Patrick McGowan, when he ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Olympia Snowe. The one issue stressed in the ads by the millennial Mason, who gets backing from the members of the conservative Christian evangelical churches, is an attack on abortion rights.
In a state that is behind on everything, and where a pugilistic governor and partisan legislative gridlock has stalled any progress, the next governor will face tough problems. Poverty and lack of opportunity, a gap between rich and poor, and an opioid crisis that kills hundreds of people a year is obscured in the public dialogue, lost in the attack ads. And the party faithful pursue these attacks on social media, tearing down opposing candidates.
Since a third of Maine’s voters are not enrolled in any political primary and cannot vote for governor on June 12, a low turnout of voters will likely decide the two finalists for the Blaine House. Although two fairly well known independent candidates – state Treasurer Terry Hayes and consultant Alan Caron – will be on the November ballot, they’re not likely to win and are likely to drain votes from the Democrats.
If the attack ads have not turned off unenrolled voters, and they are not confused by the prospect of ranked-choice voting, there is still time for them to register in a party and cast a vote for governor, even up to Election Day. (The deadline has passed to switch parties in time to vote June 12.)
They may well want to join the fun, because with the cart squarely placed in front of the horse, voters will determine the future of ranked-choice voting at the same time they use the system for the first time.
The battle to install RCV has been tortured, because Maine’s Constitution requires only a plurality to decide state elections and it has been declared unconstitutional in those elections, but not in the primaries or federal elections. With a yes vote on the June ballot, RCV will be used in future for elections for Congress, and for primaries.
Its further use in state general elections will likely await a change in Maine’s Constitution.
Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.