As we approach Maine’s historic ranked choice voting primary, voters across the state are preparing for their first opportunity to cast ballots which rank multiple candidates instead of picking just one.
What does this change mean for voters? First and foremost, it is an opportunity for Maine to continue and deepen its record of civic engagement.
Maine has an outstanding track record of voter turnout – among the best in the nation. In 2016, 771,892 Maine voters showed up for the November general election – 72.8 percent of all Mainers eligible to vote. Maine ranked second in the country for voter turnout, behind Minnesota.
Although there is room for improvement, clearly Mainers are among the most engaged and responsible when it comes to participating in and contributing to our democracy.
So what does full engagement and responsible voting mean when it comes to ranked choice voting? It means voters using their power to its fullest extent. It means voters educating themselves about the candidates and ranking as many as they could support for that office.
To be clear, voters do not have to rank all the candidates; a single vote is still permissible. But why would a voter ignore the opportunity to register their second or third choices, when additional rankings hold power and could influence the outcome?
The importance of these second and third choice rankings is clear. A recent poll commissioned by the League of Women Voters of Maine suggests that none of the races where ranked choice voting will be used in June has a run-away leading candidate. The Republican gubernatorial race required three tabulations before any candidate surpassed the 50 percent threshold. The Democrats did not determine a winner until the fifth tabulation.
While this poll was only an early snapshot, it showed that the outcome in each contest will likely require multiple tabulations. Voters who initially support candidates who make a weaker showing will have their votes re-allocated to the voters’ next-favorite candidate.
In all likelihood, the outcomes of these elections will be decided by those second-choice votes. Voters who rank their votes will determine who is nominated in both the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial primaries.
The old adage that “big decisions are made by those who show up” will be true: the gubernatorial candidates will be determined in large part by those who “show up” to make second- and third-choice rankings.
Will Maine voters use this opportunity to cast not just a first-choice vote, but also those second- and third-choice votes which now appear to be pivotal in deciding these nominations? Will Maine voters seize the full power of the newly-expanded franchise they have created, and allow ranked choice voting to live up to its potential to reinvigorate elections and capture a more complete expression of the will of the public?
I am betting that they will. One reason for optimism is that the candidates who are adapting to ranked choice voting — and who are talking to voters every day — have begun to ask voters for their second and third choices.
Previously, when a candidate heard that a voter was committed to a different candidate, that was the end of the conversation.
And at the beginning of this election cycle, many candidates in these races were slow to adjust. Many were heard to say, “I don’t want to be anyone’s second choice,” as though it would be demeaning to seek anything less than the single exclusive endorsement of a voter. There is a certain machismo in asking for only first choice votes.
Yet as candidates have begun to experience the realities of a close, multi-candidate race — one in which they have invested a great deal of time and effort — the desire to obtain an edge — any edge — is leading to more sophisticated campaign messages. Most candidates in RCV races are now directly courting voters whose first choice is already committed to another candidate.
This is good for voters and good for democracy. It empowers voters who decide to “show up” in the second-, third-, and fourth-choice columns on the ballot. While they may not know the satisfaction of seeing their favorite win the election, they can influence the choice between their second-favorite and another candidate whom they strongly dislike.
This richer voting method is also good for democracy because it dispenses with the tribalism that reduces campaigns into a crude race between one “good guy” and a bunch of “bad guys.” In a campaign where the candidates are rated rather than rubber-stamped, the true differences among the candidates matter more deeply, moving elections beyond the superficial.
Ranked choice voting offers voters the chance to uphold Maine’s well-deserved civic tradition and to renew ownership of our democracy. A solid majority of Maine voters would not dream of sitting out an election, and they should take that attitude to the polls in this historic primary election.
So to those voters who will have this historic opportunity on June 12, remember this: rank your vote. You will be glad you did, and so will your preferred candidates.
And may the best candidates win.
John Brautigam is an attorney and former legislator. He lives in Falmouth.