Voters have long complained about being forced into bad binary choices between less-than-perfect (or worse) candidates. Maine voters last year took matters into their own hands and changed the options.
Mainers in 2016 approved a ballot initiative changing from the traditional single-candidate vote to a ranked-choice system, giving voters a chance to prioritize all the candidates on the ballot.
Any candidates who capture a majority outright are winners. But if nobody gains a majority, the lowest vote-getter is dropped, and voters who picked that candidate first have those votes go to their next highest choice. The candidates are all re-ranked until someone emerges with a majority.
“There is less and less satisfaction with the binary system, and we’re just going to see that’s going to reflect itself with what we get on ballots,” said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, which supports ranked-choice voting, which is also known by such terms as “preferential vote,” “instant runoff” and “transferable vote.”
He pointed to cities, such as Minneapolis and San Francisco, that have started using ranked-choice systems but Maine is the first state to adopt the system — though it’s not been without legal hiccups.
“Right now, the issue constitutionality,” said Maine state Rep. Bill Diamond, Windham Democrat.
Maine’s Constitution only requires a plurality of votes, not an majority, for victory, so the ranked-choice system was ruled unconstitutional by the Maine Supreme Court.
The state legislature last month voted to put the new system on hold — but residents are now pushing to overturn that decision and plow ahead.
They have until Feb. 5 to enact a “people’s veto” that would authorize a referendum to overturn the legislative hold on the law’s implementation.
Dmitry Dam, a lawyer based in Maine, says ranked-choice voting is constitutional, but a larger question is how the votes are accounted for.
“The person with most votes is still the winner. The real question is ‘can a vote be a ranked-choice vote, or does a vote have to be: One person — That’s it?’ The court gets it wrong that ranked-choice voting isn’t a plurality system,” he said.
Ranked-choice opponents say the system puts a huge burden on voters, who will need to learn ranked-choice voting, and on state election officials, for whom vote-counting becomes far more complex.
“My main argument against it is, what is this ultimately getting us that we don’t already have?” said Matthew Gagnon of the Maine Heritage Center.
“I think it’s a terrible way of making a selection for any office. I don’t like the concept of making decisions blindly like that. When you’re asked to vote for — the president or any other office — you know who candidates and options are,” he said.
Republicans in Maine also see a sour grapes attitude on the part of those pushing the change.
It only came after Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, was elected with a plurality of the vote in three-way elections in 2010 and 2014. Republicans say Democrats think that Mr. LePage would have lost under either a ranked-choice system or had there only been a Republican and a Democrat on the ballot.
Those who backed putting the ranked-choice system as a 2016 ballot initiative were the Maine Democratic Party, the Libertarian Party of Maine and the Maine Green Independent Party.
Mr. LePage did not support of the measure, and has delayed its implementation until 2021, with a provision that it will be automatically repealed if it’s not in line with the state constitution.