Maine Voters Overrule Their Leaders

With support from Governor Paul LePage, the legislature nullified a statewide referendum approving ranked-choice voting. On Tuesday, the citizens got the final word and enacted it again.

John Fishman, center, the drummer for the rock band Phish, joins supporters of ranked-choice voting at a February rally in Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP)

For the past two years, Maine voters have been at war with their legislature and Governor Paul LePage over the way the state’s elections should be run.

In 2016, Mainers approved the use of ranked-choice voting in a referendum, becoming the first state in the nation to adopt the so-called instant runoff method. The following year, however, the legislature voted to delay the new system for five years, until 2022, citing concerns about whether ranked-choice voting conflicted with the state constitution. The courts declared that the system would be in place for this year’s primaries, allowing voters to test out ranked-choice voting and simultaneously decide whether to keep it.

And so on Tuesday, the people of Maine overruled the politicians they elected to represent them, voting in yet another statewide ballot initiative to maintain the system they had already approved and veto the law delaying it. In a boost to advocates who want to expand ranked-choice voting nationwide, the most recent ballot measure passed with a larger margin—nearly nine points compared to four points in 2016—than the first referendum did.

“Enough is enough,” Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, told me in a phone interview. “We’re going to decide how we’re going to elect our politicians. The politicians aren’t going to decide that for themselves.”

The debate over the new system has been mired in legal challenges and a calcifying partisan edge. Republicans, at first lukewarm on the idea, fought bitterly against it this time around. “It’s the most horrific thing in the world,” LePage, the hyperbole-prone conservative governor, told a local television station the day before the vote. The GOP candidates to replace the term-limited incumbent all railed against ranked-choice, complaining that it was confusing, legally questionable, and sought to fix a traditional first-past-the-post voting method that wasn’t broken.

One of the contenders, Mary Mayhew, told me in April that she might not accept the results under the new system. “It’s an absolute disaster,” she said then. “I think it is likely illegal, and it is incredibly confusing to those who administer the elections and to those who are getting ready to vote.” (Mayhew received just 15 percent of the vote in the GOP primary Tuesday, finishing a distant third behind businessman Shawn Moody, who won the nomination on the first ballot.)

Yet a majority of voters evidently didn’t think it was such a disaster, as they endorsed it on the spot; the unusual try-it-and-decide election on Tuesday was akin to eating at a restaurant and then giving it a positive Yelp review on the way out the door. “The big fear people had was, ‘This is confusing,’” said Jim Melcher, a professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington. “I think a lot of people might have been surprised that it was as easy to do as it was.”

Melcher credits the advertising run by advocates of ranked-choice voting, which included tutorials on how the system worked. Voters rank candidates in order of preference, and after the first round, if no one earns a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the second-choice selections are added to the remaining contenders’ tallies. The process continues, round by round, until someone gets over 50 percent.

The system has been used in Portland, Maine’s largest city, as well as in cities like Minneapolis, Oakland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. San Francisco has used ranked-choice voting in municipal elections since 2003, and this year, the system contributed to the closest mayoral race in decades. The idea gained momentum in Maine because of the state’s large number of independent voters and the fact that winners of its gubernatorial race in eight of the last 10 elections have done so without capturing a majority of the vote. LePage prevailed with barely over one-third of the vote in 2010, and advocates for ranked-choice voting argue that independent candidate Eliot Cutler would have won had the system been in use at the time.

Proponents have argued that it gives voters more of a voice because by allowing them to rank candidates, it eliminates the need to choose “between the lesser of two evils.” The method ensures that the winner will have majority support without the need for a costly runoff election, in which turnout tends to be lower. It also encourages candidates to appeal to a broader section of voters and discourages negative campaigning, supporters say, by incentivizing rivals to highlight common ground rather than differences.

Ranked-choice has also led to strategic alliances between underdogs trying to overtake a frontrunner. In San Francisco, two mayoral candidates cross-endorsed each other as their second choice, which nearly prevented the clear first-ballot leader and eventual winner, London Breed, from prevailing. In Maine, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Betsy Sweet and Mark Eves did the same, but neither are likely to win: The state won’t release the full ranked-choice results of the primary until next week, but state Attorney General Janet Mills and businessman Adam Cote are running first and second.

Ranked-choice voting didn’t come into play in the Republican gubernatorial primary, as Moody secured 56 percent of the vote on the first ballot, negating the need to look at voters’ second choices. That was probably an ideal scenario for advocates of the system, since it averted the potential for lawsuits from GOP candidates who criticized the system while campaigning. LePage had threatened not to certify the results, although the secretary of state told  reporters it was an empty threat because his role in the process is largely ceremonial.

Even with Tuesday’s vote, ranked-choice voting will stay in place only for certain elections in Maine—primaries for state and federal offices, and the general election only for U.S. House and Senate races. The presidential elections are excluded entirely. And because the state’s highest court found that the system conflicted with the Maine constitution’s call for state elections to be decided by a “plurality” of voters, the November ballots for governor and the legislature will not be ranked-choice. Advocates want the legislature to amend the constitution to allow ranked-choice voting, but GOP opposition makes that unlikely anytime soon.

Republicans attacked ranked-choice voting as confusing and constitutionally questionable, and they said their concerns were heightened by the convoluted wording of the ballot question. But they fought the change on broader grounds, as part of a backlash to the raft of ballot initiatives progressive groups have pushed in Maine during the LePage years.

With its easy access for statewide referenda and inexpensive television market, Maine has become somewhat of a guinea pig for liberal causes in recent years. In 2016 alone, voters got to decide for themselves whether to legalize marijuana, expand gun background checks, raise the minimum wage, create a new tax for education, and enact ranked-choice voting. Last year, Medicaid expansion was on the ballot. All of the measures passed except the background checks, which analysts attributed to a successful GOP campaign demonizing the influence of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who helped finance the effort.

“Mainers do like their direct democracy,” Melcher said, “but the Republicans aren’t wrong in saying that out-of-state groups have seen Maine as an opportunity to score a win.”

Led by LePage, Republicans tried to make a similar argument against ranked-choice voting—that it was a liberal experiment foisted upon Maine by outsiders. But supporters of the system countered with a refrain tinged with populism and a reminder that Maine voters had already voted once for its approval: “For years, the legislature has been overturning the will of the people,” a narrator said in one ad, “but on June 12, we can stand up to the politicians and protect ranked-choice voting.”

That message apparently resonated, and to the relief of ranked-choice advocates, the nation’s first statewide test run went off without much of a hitch. “It was a huge day for ranked-choice voting,” said Rob Richie, president of FairVote, a leading champion of the system. In an interview, Bailey credited the new system and the ballot question for strong turnout for Maine’s primary elections, and he expressed confidence that this time, the legislature would heed the voters’ wishes. Once a new system is in place and working, Bailey said, “it’s really hard for opponents to take it away.”