AUGUSTA — Maine voters will head to the polls Tuesday to select Republican and Democratic nominees for governor, and decide the fate of ranked-choice voting in statewide elections.
While many party loyalists in Maine will be waiting to see who prevails among the seven Democratic and four Republican gubernatorial candidates, political observers around the country will be monitoring the process used to select those nominees. Maine voters will not only be the first in the nation to use ranked-choice voting in a statewide election, but will also cast ballots on whether to continue utilizing the vote-counting method in future primary and congressional elections.
“Maine is the nation’s statewide test case,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and editor in chief of the center’s closely watched Crystal Ball political analysis newsletter. “After all, states are the laboratories of democracy.”
RACE TO SUCCEED LEPAGE
Of course, the highest-profile elections on Tuesday will be for the Democratic and Republican nominations to take the place of Republican Gov. Paul LePage in the Blaine House.
Gubernatorial primaries typically only draw about 15 to 30 percent of voters to the polls in Maine, and Secretary of State Matt Dunlap predicted this year could be on the higher end of that range. Reflective of the divisive views over LePage’s tenure, the four Republican candidates are vowing to continue the outgoing governor’s focus on cutting taxes and reforming welfare, while the seven Democrats are pledging to bring more civility and compassion to the State House.
Mainers may not know for up to six days who won either race, however, because the crowded fields are expected to trigger a ranked-choice tabulation. And to conduct those computer calculations, all ballots or electronic voting records must be transported to Augusta.
Headed into the final weekend before the elections, many political observers continued to place Attorney General Janet Mills and veteran/attorney Adam Cote – two perceived moderates – at the front of the seven-person Democratic field. But self-described progressives Betsy Sweet and former House Speaker Mark Eves were campaigning together and releasing joint video appeals in hopes of rising higher in the rankings, especially among more liberal voters or Democrats disillusioned by some of the negative ads aired by Mills, Cote and their supporters.
The other three Democrats in the race – former Cumberland County sheriff and Portland Sen. Mark Dion, former Portland Rep. Diane Russell and former Biddeford Mayor Donna Dion – also were working to rally their supporters.
In the Republican primary, the four Blaine House hopefuls – businessman Shawn Moody, former health and human services commission Mary Mayhew, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason and House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette – made the rounds on radio, at the annual moose hunting lottery and in downtown areas over the weekend. While there continued to be a buzz around the campaign for Moody – a former independent who ran for governor in 2010 – Mason and Mayhew were campaigning hard for votes.
Unlike in the Democratic primary, however, the prospect of voters ranking candidates in order of preference has not been a major talking point of the Republican gubernatorial race. All four candidates are on-record opposing the system, and some candidates as well as party officials are urging voters to cast ballots only for their top preference.
MAINE IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Maine voters also will be deciding whether they want to continue using the ranked-choice process. And while only registered Democrats and Republicans can participate in the party primaries, any registered voters can cast ballots on Question 1 that will decide the fate of ranked-choice voting in the state.
Maine’s experiment with ranked-choice voting is garnering national attention. Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have published articles or editorials about Maine’s use of the process, and the election is likely to draw interest from national television news networks on a day when five states will hold primary elections.
The University of Virginia’s Sabato tweeted Monday morning that his eyes will be focused on two states: Maine because of the statewide ranked-choice vote and the Republican Senate primary in his home state. In a subsequent email, Sabato said he believes the system can help reduce the “chaos … unhappiness and polarization” that sometimes comes when more extreme candidates are elected with minority support.
“My general reason for supporting it is that it helps an elected official to know that he or she at least starts out with the support and good will of a majority,” Sabato said.
Under the ranked-choice system, voters select candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first count, 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 majority and is declared the winner.
Ranked-choice voting also could be used to determine a winner of the three-way Democratic primary for Maine’s 2nd District congressional seat between House Assistant Majority Leader Jared Golden of Lewiston, conservationist Lucas St. Clair of Hampden and business owner Craig Olson of Islesboro. Additionally, the three-person race for the Republican nomination for House District 75 in the Turner area between Joshua Morris, John Alexander Pape and Angelo Terreri could come down to ranked-choice tabulation if none of the candidates wins a majority after the first vote count.
Voters approved switching to a ranked-choice system in November 2016 but the Legislature passed a law last year to delay implementation until 2022 and potentially repeal the process altogether. Ranked-choice supporters responded by organizing a second ballot initiative – this one a “people’s veto” of the Legislature’s action – in order to preserve the process for legislative and gubernatorial primary elections as well as general and primary contests for Congress.
Question 1 on the ballot reads: “Do you want to reject the parts of a new law that would delay the use of ranked-choice voting in the election of candidates for any state or federal office until 2022, and then retain the method only if the constitution is amended by December 1, 2021, to allow ranked-choice voting for candidates in state elections?”
A “yes” vote supports the continued use of ranked-choice voting. A “no” vote would suspend the use of ranked-choice voting in elections.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in most locations.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: