Courtesy of Andrew Lachance/
United States / Maine

Mainers Lead, Legislature Stumbles on Ranked-Choice Voting

America is a country whose identity is uniquely tied to its system and ideals of governance and society. We are not bound to each other by centuries of shared tradition; we are bound by our shared belief in freedom, equality, and opportunity. It is these ideals that form our national patriotism, and a democratic system of voting is both a reflection of these principles and the central way we express them. So it is important to consider whether the current reality of our voting system lives up to the ideals that created it. Maine’s state motto is “dirigo,” meaning “I lead.” That’s exactly what the people of Maine did on November 8, 2016.

The elections of 2016 were monumental and hectic, and many forget that Mainers voted by referendum—fifty-two percent to forty-eight percent—to implement ranked-choice voting, a system that allows voters to rank as many or as few candidates as they choose in order of preference. In this system, also known as instant-runoff voting, if no candidate reaches fifty percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed to those voters’ second choice. This continues until one candidate reaches the threshold and is elected. It is a system meant to provide redress for a glut of electoral issues, like allowing voters to cast a ballot for their preferred choice without worrying about the strategic consequences of voting for a third-party candidate. This prevents “spoiler” third-party candidates from splitting an ideological block and thus enabling the election of a candidate who lacks support from the majority of a constituency.

Maine is all too familiar with candidates moving into the Blaine House without a majority; the last governor to win more than fifty percent of the vote was now-Senator Angus King (I) in 1998. Current Governor Paul LePage was first elected in 2010 with 38.2% of the vote, sparking uproar and leading to LePage’s opponents plastering “61%” stickers over their cars as a reminder that the majority of LePage’s constituency did not vote him into office. With ranked-choice voting, voters are free to choose a candidate regardless of strategic considerations, which results in the election of office-holders who are more reflective of the constituencies they represent. In a state like Maine with such a strong history of casting ballots for candidates outside the traditional two parties, ranked-choice voting is particularly well-suited to address electoral grievances. Beyond requiring majority support and enabling more choice in elections, studies show that ranked-choice voting also promotes more positive campaigning, since a candidate risks losing potentially crucial second or third-place votes if he or she attacks certain opponents. We live in a time in which political rhetoric is eroding our cultural bonds, and any relief from divisive campaigning should be welcome. Ranked voting systems have been implemented at various levels in Australia, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, India, Papua New Guinea, and some cities in the United States—including Portland, Maine. And after Question 5 on the citizen referendum ballot resulted in a win for ranked-choice voting advocates, it seemed the system would spread to the entire state. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

In 1879, Governor Alonzo Garcelon—a Democrat—placed third in a dismal reelection showing, as Republican Daniel Davis fell just short of the fifty percent threshold that was then required by Maine’s Constitution. The legal proceedings in place allowed the Republican-held state legislature to pick the next governor, but Garcelon used his power as an incumbent to seat legislators that suited him politically in order to retain his seat, and armed men gathered in the state house. Bowdoin College alumnus and Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain, then the leader of Maine’s militia, traveled to Augusta, and after twelve suspenseful days, eventually ensured that Davis was seated. Garcelon’s insurrection resulted in an amendment to Maine’s Constitution allowing for all state positions, from sheriffs to the Governor, to be elected by a plurality—not a majority.

The plurality provisions of Maine’s Constitution have represented a serious legal roadblock to the implementation of ranked-choice voting throughout the state. Article IV, Part Second, Section 4 of Maine’s Constitution asserts that state senators must be “elected by a plurality of the votes,” and nearly identical clauses apply to the remaining state offices. An advisory, non-binding opinion unanimously issued by the Supreme Judicial Court on May 23, 2017 said that these provisions rendered ranked-choice voting for state offices unconstitutional, leaving the legislature with two options: repeal the referendum or amend the Constitution.

Unable to come to an agreement, the legislature chose a third option: delay. Although ranked-choice voting could be legally implemented for national elections, like the congressional campaigns for Reps. Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree in 2018, the law has been stayed in full. Though it was originally intended to go into effect on January 1, 2018, the law is now postponed until December 2021, unless a constitutional amendment is passed before then. If no amendment is passed, ranked-choice voting will officially be repealed, and the first state to have made a serious attempt at installing this system will have failed to do so. Such a defeat could have national implications, potentially sending the ranked-choice voting movement to turmoil.

To justify staying ranked-choice voting for federal elections, many legislators have suggested that competing methods of voting on the national and state levels would result in electoral catastrophe. But the voters of Maine have expressed their will: they put their weight behind a better system of voting. While there are some valid critiques of ranked-choice voting— mainly that studies show it may slightly depress turnout and that there may be an expensive one-off cost to change the system—Mainers have decided that these potential drawbacks are outweighed by the many benefits. They have posed a directive to their representatives in the legislature, and that directive should be carried out to the fullest extent possible. Mainers can handle two different systems of voting. Residents of Lewiston elect their state representatives by the mandated plurality while their mayor must be chosen by a majority. Portland elects its mayor through ranked-choice voting, but uses the conventional system for all other elections. To cast doubt upon the ability of citizens to understand and utilize two different systems of voting is to demean Mainers. We have to have more faith in the citizenry than that.

Last month, outside polling places, proponents of ranked-choice voting collected petition signatures for another referendum—a “people’s veto”—on the delay of the implementation of ranked-choice voting for federal seats. Approximately 32,000 signatures were collected—over half the amount necessary to trigger a second referendum. Mainers are not standing for the legislature’s obstruction and refusal to implement their will. America’s system of voting is not cast in stone, and neither is Maine’s. We are a nation that prides itself on being a beacon of democracy for all the world. Requiring that a representative be supported by at least half his or her constituency is just a better democratic practice. That practice can start right here. Dirigo: Maine will lead.