AUGUSTA — After all of the anticipation and waiting, ranked-choice voting did not change the final outcome of any of the primary elections that served as test pilots during Maine’s historic use of the alternate ballot-casting system.
Yet preliminary results show one candidate experienced a surge in support during Wednesday night’s vote retabulations, although not enough for her to challenge winner Attorney General Janet Mills.
“It broadened the issues that people talked about and it changed the way candidates ran their campaigns – or it certainly changed the way I ran my campaign,” said Betsy Sweet, whose adjusted vote total increased by 44 percent before she was eliminated in the last recalculation of the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Eight days elapsed between the June 12 elections and the announcement of who won the Democratic primaries for governor and the 2nd District. While that likely seemed like an eternity for the campaigns and political diehards, the week-long delay was consistent with Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s timeline for collecting, processing, verifying and retabulating hundreds of thousands of ballots from more than 500 polling places across Maine.
The “chaos” repeatedly forecast by ranked-choice opponents – including Gov. Paul LePage, who called the process “the most horrific thing in the world” – never materialized.
“We’re very pleased that this went so smoothly. I think people can trust the results,” Dunlap said Wednesday night.
The results of Maine’s first-in-the-nation statewide elections using ranked-choice voting will be dissected for months, especially by campaigns hoping to glean helpful lessons from the wildcard process. Dunlap’s office plans to release more comprehensive data on voter behavior in the coming months.
Ranked-choice allows voters to list candidates in order of preference in races with three or more candidates. Those rankings only come into play if no candidate receives majority support – essentially, 50 percent plus one vote – during the initial tally. After that, a computer algorithm works from the bottom of the standings toward the top, reallocating votes for eliminated candidates to those still in the running based on the voters’ rankings. The process continues, round by round, until one has a clear majority.
In the Republican gubernatorial primary, businessman Shawn Moody strolled away with the nomination on the evening of June 12 by winning 56 percent of the vote over his three opponents. Likewise, a Republican primary in House District 75 had a majority winner and avoided a ranked-choice tabulation.
The Democratic primary for Maine’s 2nd District did go to ranked-choice tabulations, but Rep. Jared Golden’s margins headed into Wednesday night’s tabulations were so wide that few expected a different outcome.
In the seven-person Democratic primary for governor, Attorney General Janet Mills headed into Wednesday night’s ranked-choice tabulations with 33 percent of the vote and a roughly 6,200-vote lead over her nearest opponent, attorney and veteran Adam Cote. Thirty minutes later, Mills was declared the winner of the ranked-choice election with 54.1 percent of the vote compared to Cote’s 45.9 percent. The gap between the two, meanwhile, had grown from 6,252 to 9,487 votes after the re-allocations.
The steps in between, however, and the cascade of votes to Mills, Cote and third-place finisher Betsy Sweet during the tabulation rounds, will be the subject of close analysis for future campaigns.
After the first round of retabulations, the 9,459 first-choice votes originally cast for the three candidates who were eliminated in a “batch” – Mark Dion, Diane Russell and Donna Dion – were reallocated to the top four candidates. Mills and Sweet benefited the most, receiving 2,291 and 2,204 additional votes, respectively.
But the dynamics shifted considerably in the next retabulation.
Sweet and former Maine House Speaker Mark Eves had campaigned together in the final weeks of the primary race, portraying themselves as the two most progressive candidates in the field. They also urged their respective supporters to rank the other candidate second on their ballot.
And that strategy seems to have worked but, perhaps, not to the extent that Sweet and Eves had hoped.
The lion’s share of Eves’ 19,388 votes – just over 35 percent – flowed to Sweet because supporters listed her as their next preference. Mills received 30 percent of Eves’ previous supporters, while Cote received 26 percent. The remaining 8-plus percent of Eves’ votes did not flow to any of the remaining candidate because their list of preferred candidates had been “exhausted” or they did not complete the rankings.
All told, Sweet benefited more from the first two retabulations – gaining 9,116 votes that boosted her totals by 44 percent since the Election Day results – than either Mills or Cote.
Sweet, a Hallowell lobbyist and advocate, called Maine’s first experiment with ranked-choice voting “a stunning success” because, she said, it broadened the topics discussed and changed campaigns’ strategies. She also attributed her large surge of votes prior to elimination to the positive message she and Eves were sending as well as her focus on issues – such as Clean Elections and single-payer health care – that resonated with Democrats.
“I think we were really feeling that momentum in the field,” Sweet said. “There was a narrow path to victory … so it is going to be really instructive. But I think it really told candidates and the party as a whole about what the people wanted to hear (from campaigns) going forward.”
In the final retabulation, Mills received nearly 2,200 more votes from Sweet’s supporters than Cote did. And that was enough to push the attorney general and former district attorney above the 58,216 votes she needed to win.
Mills said she believed ranked-choice voting affected the nature and tone of the primary. Candidates realized they could not risk alienating other candidates or their supporters, Mills said, before adding with a laugh that “It was important to be nice to each other.”
“Everybody’s campaign was better than it would have been because of ranked-choice voting,” Mills said soon after her victory Wednesday. “The people voted on this several times for good reasons. They expected and intended that the level of civility would rise with this tabulation (process), and I think it did so.”
Under current law, ranked-choice voting will only be used in Maine during primary elections and during federal races in November. That’s because the Maine Constitution specifies that general elections for legislative seats and governor are to be decided by “a plurality” of voters (simply meaning “the most votes”) while the ranked-choice process requires candidates to receive majority support.
Secretary of State Dunlap used a barnyard analogy to explain the challenge of implementing a new system – complete with crafting new recount rules – while defending the system in court.
“We’re trying to run through a burning barn in a gasoline suit right now,” Dunlap said earlier in the week as the ballot scanning and processing continued. “We’re not really thinking about stopping to milk the cows.”
Dunlap said the experiences gained during the primary elections will inform how his office handles future ranked-choice elections. As of Thursday, all three of the congressional races on this November’s ballot – the seats held by independent Sen. Angus King, Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin – are likely to involve ranked-choice voting.
Kyle Bailey with the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, which led the two ballot campaigns that resulted in voters approving the system, said the ranked-choice process played out along the timeline that Dunlap’s office anticipated. Like Dunlap, he expects to see the behind-the-scenes process change. But even though ranked-choice tabulations didn’t alter the outcome of any of the June 2018 races, Bailey believes the process will affect future races by leading to candidates who are elected with broader support who aren’t just accountable to a narrow base of party loyalists
“I think there have been a lot of people watching not only around the nation but around the world because America continues to lead the world in terms of being that bright, shining city on the hill that Ronald Reagan talked about,” Bailey said. “The world looks to the United States for leadership. And so here is something that we are doing in a small corner of the United States that can have a profound impact on the experience of voters in our democracy in terms of how candidates engage with other candidates and with voters.”
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap speaks with reporters about the ranked-choice voting tabulations Wednesday in Augusta. Dunlap, whos in charge of the states elections, said, “I think people can trust the results.” (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)