Commentary

Ranked Choice Voting: The Best Choice for Maine?

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Several months ago, Maine Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, and former Maine Sen. Dick Woodbury, I-Yarmouth, announced an initiative to change Maine’s voting system from its current, traditional standard to ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting. While this may sound good for Maine, the history behind implementing ranked choice voting and the possible violations of Maine election laws and the Maine Constitution are warning signs that ranked choice voting will only bring confusion and conflict to Maine’s elections.

Ranked choice voting is a difficult system to explain, so here is a step-by-step summary of how ranked choice voting works.

1. Voters fill out their ballots by ranking the candidates for a contested public office from their top choice to their last. Though voters are not compelled to rank every candidate, the system is not as efficient in picking a winner if voters do not rank every candidate.

2. Once voters rank the candidates and submit their ballots, votes are tallied and distributed to candidates whom voters chose as their first choice.

3. If there is a majority of votes for one candidate, then that candidate is declared the winner.

4. If there is no candidate with a majority of votes, then the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated from the race, and the votes cast for the eliminated candidate are redistributed to whom voters chose as their next choice.

5. Step 4 is repeated until one candidate receives the majority of votes.

Supposed benefits of ranked choice voting include less negative campaign ads, increased voter turnout to choose candidates they like, and allowing voters to vote with their “conscience”, instead of political strategy. While ranked choice voting seems to help give Maine majority-approved leaders, its implementation in statewide elections is barely tested, and small scale elections using this method tend to frustrate voters. Also, governments who have tried ranked choice voting have ended up switching back to more traditional methods.

The only time in United States history that ranked choice voting was implemented in a statewide election was during a 2010 special election in North Carolina. The state held a special election to fill an appellate court judge seat, and distributed ballots with the ranked choice voting system throughout the state. Thirteen candidates ended up on the ballot, and it took over a month to announce the winner after two rounds of elimination and a recount. Before the 2014 election, the North Carolina legislature repealed the law requiring ranked choice voting for special elections after only implementing it once.

One of the cities that has implemented ranked choice voting is none other than Portland, Maine. In 2011, Portland held an election for the office of mayor, and used the ranked choice voting system. Portland had fifteen different candidates for mayor, and the ranking system proved either too confusing or too superfluous for Portland voters. After fifteen rounds of vote distribution and two whole days of tabulation, a winner was finally declared.

If ranked choice voting took Portland two days of tabulation to pick a mayor, and took North Carolina a month to announce one winner of a statewide judicial election, imagine the amount of time and resources it would take to implement ranked choice voting in a Maine statewide general election. The Maine Secretary of State’s office has estimated that this change in voting would increase election appropriation needs by around $1.5 million to add at least one page to the ballot and change the computation and counting systems in place.

If the history of implementing ranked choice voting was not warning enough that this would not work in Maine, ranked choice voting could very well violate the Maine Constitution and election laws. The Maine Constitution and 21-A M.R.S. § 723 state that the governor, representatives, senators, sheriffs, and probate judges win an election by receiving a “plurality of the votes.” While it is true that all majorities are pluralities, not all pluralities of the votes are majorities, as evidenced in Maine gubernatorial elections.

In every first round of ranked choice voting a candidate receives a plurality of the votes. According to Maine laws, this candidate would be declared the winner. Under ranked choice voting, however, there is a chance that the winner of the first round may not end up winning the election if a majority was not obtained and a competitor received enough second and third choice votes to overtake the first candidate’s lead. There is an argument that by not declaring the winner of round one the winner of the election, the State would be violating the Maine Constitution and Maine election laws, and the result would likely be taken to court to determine the constitutional outcome.

With a rocky history of implementation and possible constitutional issues, ranked choice voting is not a viable option for Maine. While ranked choice voting may look nice in theory, the numerous problems associated with it, and potential problems Maine could face, would only seem discourage voters from going to vote due to confusion and annoyance regarding the choices, and use too many government resources to implement, and may even be illegal.

After consideration, ranked choice voting is not the right choice for Maine.

About Nathan Hitchcock

Nathan Hitchcock is currently a law student at the University of Maine School of Law and volunteers as a researcher for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Prior to law school, he attended Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he earned a B.A. in Political Economy.

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