With first ranked-choice election, LePage says he ‘probably’ won’t certify results

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Falmouth election clerks await the next wave of voters during a brief lull on Tuesday at Falmouth High School. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

[UPDATE:Matthew Dunlap urges Paul LePage to stop exaggerating about ranked-choice voting]

As Mainers headed to the polls for primary voting Tuesday morning, Gov. Paul LePage announced he may not certify the results.

Tuesday is the first time in Maine when voters statewide will use a ranked-choice system, which allows voters to submit a ballot that ranks votes for candidates in order of preference. It is being used in both parties’ voting for gubernatorial candidates, a race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House in the state’s 2nd Congressional district and a state legislative seat.

LePage, in an interview with WCSH-TV, called the voting system “the most horrific thing in the world” and said he “probably” won’t certify the results and instead will “leave it up to the courts to decide.”

LePage also said, incorrectly, that Maine had ranked-choice voting before and former Gov. Joshua Chamberlain “got rid of it” because it was not working.

The governor is apparently referring to a disputed election for governor in 1880 in which three candidates split the vote and the leader in the balloting failed to get a majority, which was then required in the state Constitution. The Legislature eventually picked the leader in the voting to serve as governor, but one candidate asked Chamberlain, as head of the state militia, to lead troops in Augusta to maintain order. Chamberlain, who had been governor from 1866 to 1870, sent the troops home.

The Constitution was changed to require only a plurality – the most votes, regardless of whether it makes a majority – to elect the governor and candidates for the state Legislature.

LePage said “Maine people continually to be (sic) snookered by out-of-state big money and out-of-state people” to adopt measures like ranked-choice voting, which was approved by referendum in 2016.

HISTORIC VOTING

Tuesday’s primary voting will mark the first time Maine has used ranked-choice voting in statewide elections, with a seven-way primary for governor among Democrats and a four-way race among Republicans. In addition, voters in the 2nd U.S. House District will choose among three Democratic candidates seeking to challenge incumbent Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Republican voters will use ranked-choice voting to pick a candidate in Maine House District 75.

Ranked-choice voting itself will also be on the ballot. The Maine Legislature adopted a bill to delay implementation of the voting system until 2021 and repeal it altogether if the state Constitution isn’t changed by then to allow its use in general election races for governor and the Maine Legislature. Supporters of ranked-choice voting have put a “people’s veto” on the ballot today to repeal that law and retain ranked-choice voting, which was adopted by referendum in 2016. Under ranked-choice voting, voters select their first choice for a position and then put the rest of the candidates in order of their preference, After the votes are counted, if no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote, the last-place candidate is eliminated and his or her votes are allocated based on voters’ second choices. The process continues until one candidate gets a majority of the vote.

Liz and Tom Murley of Cape Elizabeth said they were familiar with the process because they lived for years in England, which also uses ranked-choice voting in some elections.

“We think it’s great,” Liz Murley said, adding that the couple also voted in the referendum to support its continued use.

Tom Murley said it requires a little strategizing before casting a ballot. For instance, he said, he voted for his preferred candidate in the Democratic primary for governor, but then made sure to rank a less-favored politician well down the list when he ranked his choices.

Eric Bridger said he brought a cheat sheet to help him remember how to rank the candidates, pulling a blue slip of paper from his pocket with the candidates ranked from one to seven.

He, too, supported the referendum to override the Legislature’s attempt to limit, and perhaps derail, ranked-choice voting.

“I’m a big supporter,” Bridger said of the voting system. “It was pretty simple.” And Joe Fournier was among a steady stream of voters heading into Cape Elizabeth High School to vote.

Fournier said he’s an independent, so he couldn’t vote in any of the primaries, but wanted to support ranked-choice voting and the town’s school budget.

Fournier did say it was frustrating to have to reaffirm support for ranked-choice voting after voting for it in the referendum two years ago.

Most of the voting booths at Biddeford High School were vacant around 9 a.m. Tuesday morning. Still, City Clerk Carmen Morris said that while primary turnout is usually light, more people seemed to be showing up this year.

“I think we’ll have a pretty decent turnout,” she said.

Clerks had to instruct some people on how to fill out a ranked-choice ballot and a few voters needed a new ballot after making a mistake the first time, Morris added.

But by and large, she said, most people didn’t have trouble with the new system.

“The instructions are pretty clear,” Morris said.

Harpswell voter Brian O’Sullivan concurred. He had done a little research ahead of time, but said the printed instructions in the voting booths were easy to follow.

“It was easier than expected,” he said.

Voters at that location had turned out in such a steady stream that election wardens ran out of “I voted today” stickers by 9: 30 a.m.

O’Sullivan said that wasn’t a surprise, given the hyperpartisan tone of politics today.

“I expect it will be a really good turn out,” he said.

Dori Rogers was leaving the polling station past Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Mark Eves and Donna Dion, who were outside greeting voters.

Rogers said she supported ranked-choice voting, but the wording of the ballot question was confusing.

“If I hadn’t seen a commercial about it I wouldn’t have known how to vote,” she said.

Using ranked choices for the primary was no problem, she added.

“I liked that choice,” she said. Ranked-choice voting is used in about a dozen cities in the U.S., including Portland. The only other use of it in a statewide election was for a judicial post in North Carolina in 2010, which called for ranked-choice voting in a narrow set of circumstances. North Carolina repealed its ranked-choice voting system in 2013.

RESULTS LIKELY DELAYED

The Maine Republican Party opposes ranked-choice voting and filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop its use in its primary. But a federal judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction to bar its use.

The method will not be used in this fall’s election for governor or state legislative seats because of conflicts with the state Constitution. But if voters pass the people’s veto, it will be used in the races for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.

Because of the logistics of tabulating votes under ranked-choice voting, results aren’t likely to be known for a week.

Towns and cities have three days to send their paper ballots and results from vote tabulating machines to Augusta, where the secretary of state’s staff will unlock and unseal ballot boxes, upload data from the tabulating machines and run a high-speed counting program designed for ranked-choice voting. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said that his office will release unofficial results from the first round of counting, along with the results from subsequent rounds, but he expects final results will not be available until the week of June 18.

Observers are predicting a strong turnout for the primary because of the wide-open races for governor in both parties and the race to challenge Poliquin.

Weather wasn’t expected to be a factor in turnout today, with mostly sunny skies statewide and temperatures rising to the mid- and upper-70s.

Staff Writer Peter McGuire contributed to this report.

This story will be updated.

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