Capitol Notebook: Prospects dim for ranked-choice voting

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The Legislature has hit warp speed as it works through the remaining bills that must be decided before its June 21 adjournment.

Lawmakers now measure their Augusta time in hours, not weeks, and as the number of bills gets smaller, the job gets harder. The thorny issues include action on a new two-year budget, which needs to go into effect July 1 to avoid a government shutdown.

The budget discussion has stalled on the issue of education funding, and the fate of the 3 percent tax surcharge on incomes over $200,000 that Maine voters passed last year to support education. Republicans are fighting the tax increase, and there are battles between and among the two parties. Something needs to be enacted this week to meet the deadlines to ensure that a budget is in place by July 1.

But the remaining legislative time is also complicated by the need for lawmakers to deal with ranked-choice voting, an attempt to overhaul Maine’s election system that voters approved in November. RCV in most Maine statewide elections, except primaries, has been declared unconstitutional by Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court. The Legislature must take some action, or risk a 2018 election where the results are challenged. If a lawsuit challenges the results because RCV is unconstitutional, it could be months before an election is decided.

This new system of voting, only used in 11 other jurisdictions nationwide, and not used by any other state, aims to produce a majority winner using successive rounds of tabulations. RCV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate wins a majority in the first round, the votes are re-tabulated, the last place candidate eliminated, and his or her second-place votes redistributed and so on, until a majority winner is achieved. But the Constitution comes into play because it requires only a plurality, not a majority, for elections for the Legislature and governor, and conflicts with RCV.

There are two major proposals to solve the RCV impasse. A proposal for a Constitutional amendment that would change the plurality language requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, followed by a popular vote. It would be doomed in this evenly divided Legislature.

Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, has proposed a bill to repeal ranked-choice voting. This could be passed by a simple majority, and will likely face a better fate in the Legislature, which needs to take some action to forestall a potential election disaster in 2018.

Legislators may search for a third way to solve this problem, and install ranked-choice voting in state primaries, and federal elections, which are not covered under the high court’s ruling. Former gubernatorial candidate Peter Mills has suggested that the ranked-choice voting system could remain in the party primary elections, where the turnout is often low and RCV could boost voter interest.

But once party candidates emerge, the general election would retain the same drawbacks that RCV was meant to correct: Multiple candidates for governor, for example, including independents, could divide the vote and the victor would likely be shy of a majority. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap has objected to running different election systems for primaries and general elections, but it could be done.

Ranked-choice voting is just one strategy to solve the deeper questions of how can we run elections to maximize the interest and involvement of the voters. Other reforms that have been proposed have stalled in the Legislature, including opening primaries to independent voters.

And if we really want to elect majority winners, it would be better achieved by runoff elections, with two rounds of voting. An initial vote could produce two finalists, and voters could focus on that choice in a subsequent vote, similar to the recent election in France. Those who oppose that idea often cite cost, and the reluctance of voters to return for a runoff election.

But if a two-round election would turn up the best candidate, cost should not be a barrier. And voter interest should remain high in a focused contest between the two final candidates with an extended opportunity for the candidates to make their case.

Unfortunately, a Legislature dominated by the two parties has never shown much interest in election process reform, which is what forced the referendum vote on RCV in the first place.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.

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