The backers of ranked-choice voting promised that the novel system would bring nicer candidates, each contestant hoping to be the voters’ second choice if the contest went to a second or third round. The theory goes, they wouldn’t want to alienate supporters of the other candidates.
But the Democratic primary for governor has not played out that way, with one candidate accusing another of resembling a character in “House of Cards,” the ultra-dark television drama where the main character murders a journalist he was sleeping with. Among other things.
The attack by Mark Eves on Attorney General Janet Mills came after Augusta was shocked on March 29 by last-minute questions about RCV, first brought to the attention of Secretary of State Matt Dunlap by a legislative committee analyst, who found conflicts between parts of the statute and alerted the attorney general’s office.
The possible glitch in using RCV is likely to get resolved, but it didn’t stop Eves from attacking Mills for a perceived conflict of interest. Mills is the likely front-runner, who might win a simple plurality election. She is targeted by the other candidates whose path to victory requires that she does not get a first-round majority in a ranked-choice election.
“For the attorney general’s office to veto the will of the people in a way that benefits the electoral prospects of the attorney general is so brazenly political and such a conflict of interest that you’d roll your eyes if you saw it on ‘House of Cards’,” Eves wrote. “But it just happened here in Maine and Mainers shouldn’t stand for it.”
The ranked-choice system that lets voters rank candidates in order of preference, and then eliminates candidates in successive rounds until one candidate gets a majority, is controversial. Enacted by voters in 2016 in a referendum vote, it was stalled by the Legislature because it conflicts with the Maine Constitution. Also, Republicans generally dislike it.
RCV backers then gathered enough signatures to overturn the Legislature’s action that had thwarted RCV, which sent the issue back to voters to decide during the upcoming June 12 primary and means that RCV can be used in the primary. Another Democratic candidate, former state Rep. Diane Russell, has led the campaign for ranked-choice voting, and has been focusing her energy on navigating the recent challenges.
Mills says she has recused herself from issues involving the election, turning them over to Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner. It is hard to know why the problem was discovered only at the last minute, and some feel that many actors want to thwart the use of RCV. The senate Republicans promptly went into court to get a ruling on RCV, which may end up at the Supreme Judicial Court.
The seven Democrats have sparred over other issues on the long campaign road. At a recent forum in Buxton, candidates touched the hot-button issue of guns, the longtime “third rail” of Maine politics.
Adam Cote, who served several combat tours during a long National Guard career, said “I know all about guns, we need a governor who understands firearms,” a new requirement it seems for the Blaine House. “We have no need for bump stocks, but we have to have a discussion.”
Eves has carved out a strong position against the National Rifle Association, saying that he wants them out of the state because they present a permanent barrier to gun-safety improvements.
Former Cumberland County Sheriff and current state Sen. Mark Dion instead wants to bring the NRA “to the kitchen table” to talk about gun safety.
“Standing up to the NRA is easy,” Dion said. “I want to win over NRA members. We all value our kids.”
The rights of Maine’s Indian tribes also divided the candidates, with several echoing the tribes’ dislike of Mills, who is criticized for bringing various lawsuits that limited the rights of the Penobscot Indians to their namesake river. Several of the candidates said they want to revisit the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement, saying it no longer helps the tribes.
The seven candidates, who claim to get along, all speak of an urgency to improve Maine’s health-care system and fight the drug abuse crisis that has claimed so many lives. They offer suggestions from a public option buy-in to Maine’s Medicaid program, to addressing the isolation that can lead to drug use.
Any one of these candidates, who also include Betsy Sweet – the only Clean Elections candidate in the group, whose key issue is getting money out of politics – and former Biddeford Mayor Donna Dion, could help fight the darkness of the state’s drug crisis, which has deepened under Gov. Paul LePage.
But the road to the primary looks bumpy.
Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.