PORTLAND — Mainers have voted for a radical overhaul of elections, and now there’s much work to be done before the first statewide ranked-choice system is implemented.
Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said that he’ll be meeting in coming weeks with legislative leaders and ranked-choice voting advocates to start the implementation process. And he’s already worried that the 2018 date in the referendum may be too ambitious.
But Kyle Bailey, campaign manager of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, said there’s no wiggle room on the implementation date.
“This is not a recommendation or an advisory opinion of the people. This was a statute enacted by the Maine people,” he said.
Nationwide, a dozen cities have adopted ranked-choice voting, and Maine voters on Tuesday became the first to endorse the system for statewide elections.
It works like this: Voters rank their top four ballot choices from first to last instead of simply choosing a single candidate.
If no candidate wins an outright majority, then the election outcome is determined by additional rounds of tabulations in Augusta. In each round, the last-place candidate would be removed, and votes reallocated, until a candidate receives a majority of the vote.
The system is sometimes called an instant runoff.
But it wouldn’t be instant in Maine. That’s because the ballots would have be shipped by town clerks to a central location in Augusta for additional voting rounds. Thus the outcome of an election in a multiple-candidate race might not be known for several weeks.
Supporters say the system ensures that a candidate wins majority support while eliminating the impact of spoiler candidates or party extremists who lack centrist appeal.
Constitutional questions remain. The Maine Constitution declares the winner by a plurality, not majority, and requires votes to be collected locally. Both of those questions must be addressed before implementation, and even then there could be a legal challenge, Dunlap said.
Supporters have downplayed the constitutional questions, and the system is already in use for mayoral elections in Portland.
“The voters of Maine have spoken,” said Jill Ward, president of the League of Women Voters of Maine. “We’re ready to get to work to ensure that this new law is implemented efficiently and effectively, and that the will of the people is upheld.”
Maine’s motto is Dirigo, which is Latin for “I lead.”
And voters have shown a willingness to lead. State voters approved medical marijuana in 1999 and endorsed legal protections for gays and lesbians in 2005. The state took steps toward universal health care a decade ago and even allowed residents to go to Canada to get cheap prescription drugs.
Maine’s new ranked-choice voting system will be used for races for governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House, Maine Senate and Maine House.
Craig Burnett, a Hofstra University political science professor who’s studied ranked-choice voting, said there are pluses and minuses to the system that Maine has chosen.
Some people will love it, and others won’t, he said.
Nationwide, four communities that adopted ranked-choice voting later repealed it.
“All voting systems have costs and benefits. There’s no such thing as a perfect way to cast and count votes,” he said.