Maine Tried a New Way of Voting. Will Other States Follow?

By: - June 26, 2018 12:00 am

Residents of Kennebunk cast ballots in Maine’s first ranked-choice election. Maine is the first to adopt the system statewide. Charles Krupa/AP

Voters in Maine went to the polls earlier this month to do something they’ve never done before: rank candidates based on preference.

The new voting system, the first in the nation to be used statewide, offers a significantly different way of thinking about voting. You aren’t just voting for one candidate; you rank candidates from most to least preferred. A winner is chosen after the lowest vote-getters are eliminated and votes for other preferred candidates are redistributed. In theory, the system produces a winner who most voters can at least tolerate.

Many election officials think ranked-choice voting is the ideal system to settle candidate-packed elections, while also giving third-party candidates a chance at winning. Some county clerks, however, aren’t thrilled, concerned about new costs and confusion.

Maine’s switch to ranked-choice voting, which is already used in 11 cities nationwide, has some state election officials looking to the Pine Tree State to see if the system could be adopted elsewhere.

So far this year, 14 states have considered legislation to adopt ranked-choice voting. Only Utah, with a measure that opens the path for cities to adopt the new voting standard, succeeded in implementing a new law.

“It’s not there yet, but we’re getting close to normalizing,” said Rob Richie, president and CEO of FairVote, a group that advocates for ranked-choice voting.

But reviews in Maine have been mixed. As with other cities that have tried ranked-choice voting, many voters were perplexed at the polls, results were delayed, and voter education and new software cost the state thousands of dollars.

At the same time, it offered voters a chance to elect local officials with majority support — unusual in a state where nine of the last 11 winners in gubernatorial races earned less than 50 percent of the vote. Proponents such as Richie say it also reduces negative campaigning since it requires candidates to reach out to voters who may rank them as a second or third choice.

Candace Alden, a voter from Auburn, Maine, said she “wholeheartedly” agrees with the concept of ranked-choice voting. Still, the 70-year-old added, “It was slightly confusing. I thought I was more prepared than I actually was.”

It was clearer for Teddy Piper, a 29-year-old from Falmouth, who said the system was “straightforward,” but only because he had done his homework on his second and third choices.

“It’s a great system in theory, but I was worried how well people understood the mechanics of it,” he said. “Do people understand that their No. 2 choice was critical? I’m worried how it’s going to play out.”

Lisa Goodwin, Bangor’s city clerk, said many voters were confused by the new system. Of the 4,555 ballots cast in Bangor that day, about 200 were spoiled because of voter error from confusion over ranked-choice voting, she said. That’s far more than she sees in a typical election.

“There were a lot of angry voters,” Goodwin said.

Counting ranked-choice ballots can take a long time. More than a week after voters across the state cast their ballots, Democratic primary results still weren’t finalized. It took eight days for officials in Augusta, the state’s capital, to release the final results.

A New Voting Standard for States?

Launching a ranked-choice voting system requires a significant change to the way elections are conducted and results are counted.

On the ballot, voters rank candidates from first to last. The candidate earning more than half the vote wins. If no one passes the threshold, the instant runoff kicks in and the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. The second-choice votes from those losing ballots are allocated to the remaining candidates. This process, which only requires the original vote, repeats until a candidate gets majority support.

Most cities that use ranked-choice voting have adopted the system only in the last two decades. But a century ago, the system was more common, said David Kimball, associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Only Cambridge, Massachusetts, which adopted the system in the 1940s, has kept it. Other cities ditched the standard after major political parties and organized factions didn’t like how it gave other parties, and in some cases racial minorities, a chance at winning local races, Kimball said. The system may be making a comeback.

“It seems to be gaining momentum,” Kimball said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be widespread, but it is gaining a following among folks who are unhappy with the winner-take-all system we use for almost all of our elections.”

Election systems developers, seeing momentum shifting, have begun developing special software that cities and states can use in ranked-choice elections to count ballots, said Connie Schmidt, a consultant with the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, a project that helps municipalities manage new election systems.

“Vendors are making really good progress,” Schmidt said. “The problem is jurisdictions have outdated equipment, and voting systems are historically at the bottom of the wish list for counties and states.”

But while software to count ballots more quickly and simulate the “instant runoff” is being developed and distributed, older equipment may still cause delays in some places.

New Mexico is one state that’s ready for ranked-choice voting, said Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver. In March, Santa Fe conducted its first election using the system. Voters knew about and understood the new system, Toulouse Oliver said, and turnout was up. That was a sign that voters were excited about the new system, she said.

The apparent success in Santa Fe may inspire other cities in the state, such as Albuquerque, to adopt a similar election standard, Toulouse Oliver said. Las Cruces is preparing to use it for its 2019 municipal elections.

Toulouse Oliver said the state has the right voting equipment and political will to implement the system over time, and eventually statewide.

“I think it’s important for a voting system to reflect the will of the people and be a system that they like and are comfortable with,” she said. “The jury is still out. The best way to do that is to continue doing it locally and see how it goes.”

In Utah, cities can now conduct ranked-choice voting in nonpartisan municipal elections, thanks to the new law signed earlier this year. State Rep. Marc Roberts, the legislation’s Republican author, said it is the first step toward making ranked-choice voting the statewide standard.

“It’s not a perfect voting model,” he said. “But this is far better than the plurality model.”

But while support for the new voting model has been building in some Utah cities, some county election officials have a different take.

Ricky Hatch, the clerk for Weber County and legislative chairman of the Utah Association of Counties, said an overwhelming majority of county clerks dislike ranked-choice voting. Fellow clerks, he said, are worried about the high costs of educating voters, making longer ballots and buying better equipment.

To conduct its ranked-choice election, Santa Fe spent $100,000 more than it had in previous elections. In Maine, it cost an additional $80,000 to implement the new system.

Hatch also worries that absentee and military ballots won’t be counted if they don’t arrive in time because of delays in postage.

But Amelia Powers, the Republican nominee for clerk of Utah County, is more open to ranked-choice voting. She said if elected she wants to work with cities such as Provo, which recently elected a mayor with less than 50 percent support, to adopt the new system slowly over time.

“Eventually, assuming we get all the bugs worked out,” she said, “I’m not opposed to using ranked-choice in general elections either.”

Learning From Other Cities

City officials who have overseen ranked-choice elections are well aware of some of those bugs.

When Minneapolis adopted ranked-choice voting in 2009, it took 15 days to get final election results.

Over the years, and after adapting new software and refining techniques, the city significantly sped up the process. In 2013, it took three days to get the final results. And in 2017, it took less than 24 hours.

As the city has gotten comfortable with the voting system, so, too, have voters. Voter participation doubled, from 20 percent in 2009 to 42 percent in 2017. Most cities “would eat their heart out” for that sort of voter participation in odd-year, municipal elections, said Minneapolis City Clerk Casey Carl, who credited the new system for higher turnout.

The future of ranked-choice voting in Maine is unclear. It was a long, drawn-out process even to get to this point, including referendums, bills and lawsuits. In 2016, voters in Maine approved the ranked-choice system by referendum.

The Legislature, arguing such a system may violate the state constitution, delayed implementation until 2022, only to be overruled by state courts. Maine voters confirmed their preference for the new system on primary day when they approved another ballot initiative to keep ranked-choice voting.

Republican Maine Gov. Paul LePage called the new system the “most horrific thing in the world” and said he probably would not certify the primary results. But Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said the governor doesn’t certify primary nominations. Dunlap said that voting had gone “smoothly.”

Even so, Maine won’t be using ranked-choice voting for all elections. Unless the state Legislature, which is divided over this issue, passes a constitutional amendment, the system cannot be used in a general election for gubernatorial or state legislative seats.

Maine voters, however, will use the new system for federal elections this fall, joining nearly a dozen U.S. cities.

“There’s work to do to explain the new system to voters,” said Kyle Bailey, a spokesman for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, which led the effort to bring the standard to Maine. “But Maine people stood up and made their voice heard, insisting on more choice in democracy.”

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.