Maine voters soon to decide fate of ranked-choice voting

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Maine voters will finally get their chance to try out the hotly debated ranked-choice voting system when they head to the polls to select party nominees for governor, Congress and the Legislature on June 12.

While they’re in the voting booth, Mainers will also face Question 1 on their ballots, asking them if they want to keep the first-in-the-nation ranked-choice system in place by rejecting a bill the Legislature passed to repeal the system.

The road to ranked-choice voting has been a twisting one ever since 52 percent of voters approved the system at the ballot box in November 2016. A series of legal challenges by opponents has been steadily beaten back by ranked-choice advocates, who say the new system will temper the partisan divide and foster the election of candidates from the political center.

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 would then have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidates, and the ballots would be retabulated. The process continues until one candidate has a clear majority of votes.

The city of Portland and other municipalities around the country have been using ranked-choice voting in municipal elections for several years, but Maine would be the first state in the U.S. to apply the method to elections for statewide or federal office.

The system only comes into play if there are three or more candidates running for an office. On the June 12 ballot, that means ranked-choice decisions will be made in the Democratic and Republican primaries for governor, the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District and a Republican primary in Maine House District 75.

If voters approve Question 1 on June 12, ranked-choice voting would also be applied to congressional races in the general election, beginning this November.

Pending, however, is a possible appeal of a recent federal court ruling against the Republican Party of Maine, which was the latest group to file a challenge to the system.

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said Friday the party was still considering its options but had yet to decide whether it would appeal to the federal Circuit Court a recent ruling by U.S. District Judge John Levy. He denied a request by the party to keep using the traditional voting system for its nominees.

“We are still considering our options,” Savage said, noting that he was in talks with the party’s lawyers on Friday. “And while we still believe our rights have been violated under the U.S. Constitution, we are also aware of the proximity of this election and do not want this to be perceived as a political action on our part.”

Maine GOP against Question 1

The party has also prepared brochures detailing its opposition to ranked-choice voting, which it has made available online and on social media. In email messages to party members, chairwoman Demi Kouzounas asks Republicans to make phone calls and offers to provide scripts and phone lists to campaign against ranked choice.

“If we do our job and more Democrats and Independents come to their senses, we may be able to defeat this on June 12,” Kouzounas wrote in the email, which was sent Thursday. Both Kouzounas and Savage emphasize that ranked choice and other ballot questions approved by voters in 2016 had been funded largely by out-of-state donors.

Savage said the party was also preparing to spend money on a campaign to defeat Question 1 on June 12, but he would not go into details. State campaign finance laws will require a disclosure within 24 hours of any donations or expenditures made now, with the election less than 11 days away.

Signs urging people to vote against Question 1 are popping up around the state, but Savage said he believed the signs were largely a small grassroots effort that was not being coordinated by the party. In Wiscasset, several signs urging a “no” vote on Question 1 appear to be signs that have been recycled from past ballot question campaigns.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said Friday there has been no formal registration of a political action committee or ballot question committee to oppose Question 1.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting, including the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, a political action committee that backed the 2016 statewide referendum, and the Chamberlain Project, a ballot question committee formed to support a “yes” vote on Question 1, were both reporting contributions and expenditures.

The Chamberlain Project reported a $75,000 expenditure on Friday for social media advertising, while the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting reported a $10,000 contribution from a Massachusetts financial adviser, David Peeler.

Protecting ranked-choice voting

The ranked-choice PAC pulled in a total of $133,752 in contributions in April and May, including a $100,000 donation from Jonathan Soros, a New York investment fund manager and frequent donor to liberal causes.

Kyle Bailey, a spokesman with the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, said advocates were focusing on making sure voters understood that a “yes” vote on Question 1 would keep in place the system they have already approved.

“For the first time Maine voters have the opportunity to rank their choices and exercise more voice at the ballot box,” Bailey said. “They are also going to vote to protect ranked-choice voting and stand up to the Maine Legislature.”

Bailey said voters his campaign is talking with are frustrated and are looking for an opportunity to express that.

“They are looking for a better way to elect politicians,” he said, “and they chose that path in November of 2016.”

Bailey said voters understand the logic behind ranked-choice voting and find it “infuriating that we have to vote on this a second time because the Maine Legislature didn’t listen to us. Voters are looking forward to showing up at the polls and registering that desire for more voice and that discontent with the politicians in Augusta.”

State of Maine sample ballot for ranked-choice voting

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