“When we ask [people] for their vote, we also ask for their second-choice vote if we don’t get their first choice,” said Michael Ambler, campaign manager for Janet Mills, a leading Democratic contender and the state’s attorney general. “But it’s not changing the positions or anything like that that we’re taking.”
Still, Ambler told me the system was too untested in Maine for there to be an established wisdom on how to use it most effectively. “I don’t think people have built up a lot of expertise with this, so I think people are mostly running the way they would in a different election,” he said.
As attorney general, Mills had raised questions about the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting—a position that has drawn criticism from her rivals. But Ambler said she supports its use in the primaries and vowed not to contest the results if she lost under the new format. “We are absolutely committed to accepting the results,” he told me.
If Mills and the other Democrats are incorporating the new system into their campaigns, Mayhew is ignoring it entirely. When I inquired whether she was asking voters to make her their second choice if they were supporting someone else, she scoffed. “Just think about that statement? Can you imagine asking someone that?” Mayhew replied. “No, I’m campaigning to be their No. 1 choice.”
She argued that ranked-choice voting could disenfranchise voters who pick lower-tier candidates but choose not to select a second choice, and she said it was a poor alternative to the more common use of run-off elections to ensure winners secure majority support. “You want to have a run off? Then have a runoff,” Mayhew said. “But as a voter, you’re going in to pick the person you most want to win.”
The state’s Republican Party, which has expressed its opposition to ranked-choice voting in the primary, isn’t dissuading candidates from challenging the election results in court. “It’s their prerogative,” Savage told me.
In addition to the constitutional dispute, there are questions about how Maine will pay for the new system and how the ballots will be counted. The referendum calls for counting to be done at a centralized location, but state law requires ballots to be counted locally.
While the rules for other elections are unclear, the general election for governor this fall will not use ranked-choice voting. And Savage made clear that the GOP’s opposition was not due to any perceived electoral disadvantage. “We don’t think there’s a partisan advantage either way,” he said. “This is not a fight about political advantage. It’s a fight about respecting Maine’s constitution.”
Advocates for expanding ranked-choice voting nationwide are watching the Maine process closely, hoping that a successful experience will generate momentum to institute it in other states, like Massachusetts, or major cities like New York or Los Angeles. “There will be aspects of Maine that will be uniquely challenging,” Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, which supports changes to elections like ranked-choice voting and a national popular vote for president, said. Whereas many cities that use ranked-choice voting can tabulate the results on election night, Maine’s rules mean the state will take at least a few days to count all the ballots.