Ballot measure to keep ranked-choice voting holds lead in early returns

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Kyle Bailey, spokesman for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, is interviewed at the group’s primary night rally shortly after polls closed in Portland on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. Maine voters didn’t just select their favorite candidates, they ranked the candidates from first to last using the system for the first time in statewide primaries. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

With just over half of all precincts counted Tuesday night, Mainers appeared to favor keeping a first-in-the-nation ranked-choice voting system for statewide races, but the race remained too close to call.

Supporters of Question 1 held a 55-45 percent lead with 51 percent of precincts reporting at 11:20 p.m. on a people’s veto that’s being closely watched across the country.

Maine voters first approved ranked-choice voting by referendum in November 2016, but the law was mired in legal challenges for nearly a year. The Republican-led Legislature passed a bill in October 2017 that sought to delay implementation, and supporters then responded by gathering enough signatures to force a people’s veto. That’s what was on the ballot Tuesday.

Under the ranked-choice system, voters select candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Voters who preferred the eliminated candidate then have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidates, and the ballots are retabulated. That process continues until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the votes.

In a strange set of circumstances, Mainers got to vote on ranked-choice voting’s future while simultaneously testing it in the Republican gubernatorial primary, which featured four candidates; the Democratic gubernatorial primary, which featured seven; the three-way Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District; and a three-way Republican primary in Maine House District 75.

None of those races was likely to be decided Tuesday and the Secretary of State’s Office has said it could be next week before final votes are counted.

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RESULTS ARE BINDING

Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for Yes on 1, said he hoped high turnout meant good news for ranked-choice voting.

“There are so many people who were excited to vote, to rank their choices for the first time,” he said.

Bailey believes both Democrats and Republicans in their respective primaries ran more positive campaigns because of ranked choice.

Hours before the polls closed Tuesday, Gov. Paul LePage called ranked choice “the most horrific thing in the world,” and threatened to not certify the results of the people’s veto, leaving it instead to the courts to decide. He also incorrectly stated that Maine had ranked-choice voting before and former Gov. Joshua Chamberlain “got rid of it” in the 1800s because it was not working.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, however, said Tuesday’s primary election results are binding whether LePage certifies them or not.

“His role is more or less ceremonial,” Dunlap said.

The wording of Question 1 was complicated, but a “yes” vote meant the law passed by the Legislature last fall would be vacated and ranked-choice voting will be the method used for all state and congressional primary races, as well as all congressional races in the general election.

A “no” vote meant the law passed by the Legislature would be upheld, and ranked-choice voting will be put on hold until 2022 and will move forward only if a constitutional amendment is passed by the end of 2021. That would require two-thirds support of both the Maine House and Senate, and then majority approval by voters.

Turnout was strong at polling places across Maine. Ranked-choice voting appeared to be a major factor driving voters, but it also appeared to cause some confusion.

At Portland’s Deering High School, some voters were having trouble filling out their ranked-choice ballots correctly. Barbara Harvey, a Republican election warden, said by 10:30 a.m., there were already seven spoiled ballots and two disqualified ballots – far more than normal.

“It doesn’t sound like much, but you usually don’t have more than five,” she said. “Even the educated public is having a hard time,” Harvey added.

CONFUSION OVER WORDING

Biddeford City Clerk Carmen Morris said some voters had to be instructed on how to fill out a ranked-choice ballot and a few voters needed a new ballot after making a mistake the first time. But by and large, she said, most people didn’t have trouble with the new system.

“The instructions are pretty clear,” Morris said.

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 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.”

Bennett Allen of Buxton said he voted only for his top choice candidate because he opposed ranked-choice voting.

“I think the old style was fine and I’d like to keep it that way,” he said. “I didn’t see a need to change it.”

Some voters had no problem ranking candidates, but were confused by the wording of Question 1.

“I had to read it like three times,” said Kelly Crotty, 31, of Portland.

No matter the outcome Tuesday, ranked choice will not be used in this fall’s election for governor or state legislative seats because of conflicts with the Maine Constitution. Opponents could continue to fight, too. Last month, the state Republican party filed a lawsuit in federal courtseeking to stop the use of ranked choice in the party primary. A federal judge refused to issue the injunction the party sought.

But if voters pass the people’s veto, it will be used in the races for the U.S. House and Senate for the first time ever.

Jeanne Massey with FairVote Minnesota, which has implemented ranked choice in Minneapolis and St. Paul, said the system has been successful there and elsewhere. She said the next step is adoption on a statewide level.

“Everyone is watching Maine,” she said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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