AUGUSTA — Attorney General Janet Mills won the Democratic nomination for governor on Wednesday following the nation’s first use of ranked-choice voting to decide a statewide election.
After days of scanning, downloading and certifying ballots, the Secretary of State’s Office ran all of the results from the June 12 election through the ranked-choice voting tabulation software. The result: Mills won the seven-person primary with 54.1 percent of the vote, followed by veteran and attorney Adam Cote with 45.9 percent, in unofficial results. The margin between Mills and Cote – the Democratic front-runners following the balloting last week – was just under 9,500 votes once all of the ranked-choice votes had been reallocated.
A former legislator and district attorney from Farmington, Mills will face off against Republican Shawn Moody and two independents, Alan Caron and Terry Hayes, in November’s race for governor. Both Mills and Hayes, who currently serves as state treasurer, will be vying to become Maine’s first woman governor.
Mills, 70, said she will run a positive campaign “about moving the state forward and about bettering the prospects for the people of Maine,” while praising the contributions of her primary opponents.
“I’m also pleased because we got to campaign for the past 11 months with such very fine people, with six other Democrats who all had the best interests of Maine at heart, who shared ideas,” Mills said shortly after the tabulations were finalized. “We got to know each other and we got to know thousands of people from across the state of Maine. I learned something new every day from the other candidates and from the people of the state of Maine: what’s going on, what needs to happen in the future, how we can move forward. It was all part of a very exciting dialogue that I wouldn’t give up for anything.”
Asked her plan for taking on Moody, Mills smiled and replied: “You’ll hear about it, in due course.”
Moody, a Gorham resident who founded an autobody repair chain, likely hinted at one of his lines of attack against Mills in his response to her victory.
“Voters are not looking for a lifelong politician or a lawyer litigator,” Moody said in a statement. ” I am a job creator who will grow and protect Maine’s economy, not a lifelong politician and lawyer.”
Moody, who ran for governor as an independent in 2010, won last week’s Republican primary outright, avoiding a ranked-choice tabulation by capturing 56 percent of the vote in the four-person race.
Cote, a retired major in the Army Air National Guard as well as an attorney and renewable energy entrepreneur, vowed to support the nominee and urged other Democrats to do the same.
“Janet Mills won this race,” he said. “She was strong everywhere across the state, as her vote totals show. Our primary is over and it is time for all Democrats and all Mainers who want to see a better future for our state to get involved and help Janet run the strongest campaign possible and win in November.”
With the ranked-choice tabulations now complete, the primary results set up a race between a businessman with no political experience but who surprised many with his margin of victory in the Republican primary and a Democratic attorney general with decades of experience in state politics. The pair and the two independents will be vying to replace Gov. Paul LePage, a controversial and brash-talking Republican still beloved by many in his party but strongly disliked by many Democrats.
Mills rose to the top of a seven-person Democratic field in which candidates shared many of the same policies but had starkly different backgrounds and styles for achieving those goals.
During the primary campaign, Mills emphasized her track record to standing up against LePage and President Trump as attorney general, as well as her electability in rural Maine because of her roots in the 2nd Congressional District. She also pledged to work to improve jobs and Maine’s economy, to expand broadband internet access in rural Maine, to put a higher emphasis on addressing the state’s opioid crisis, to embrace Medicaid expansion and to bring a more civil tone to Augusta than under LePage.
Although ranked-choice voting has been used in several cities across the country – including Portland, Maine’s largest municipality – last week’s Maine primaries were the first time in the nation the process was used in statewide elections. The system was also considered a wild card in the two crowded primaries for governor.
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.
The scene at the ranked-choice voting tabulation headquarters was electric – and decidedly jovial – Wednesday night as dozens of people crammed into a small conference room to watch the final calculations. Thousands more were watching various livestream videos of the proceedings online, hoping to see not only the results but the unprecedented process play out.
The standings in the Democratic primary did not change between the first-choice votes cast on Election Day and the final tabulations after accounting for the ranked-choice system, although the margins did shift.
Mills led Cote 33 percent to 28 percent – or by 6,252 votes – after Election Day, according to results supplied by the Secretary of State’s Office on Wednesday night. However, by the time the other five candidates’ votes had been reallocated using the ranked-choice system, Mills’ lead over Cote had increased to 9,487 votes.
In the fourth and final round of tabulations, more supporters of third-place finisher Betsy Sweet favored Mills over Cote, pushing the attorney general over the 50 percent threshold.
“I think it did elevate the level of civility of the campaign, despite some of the foolishness towards the end,” Mills said, an apparent reference to the increasingly negative tone and attack ads between Mills, Cote and their supporters in the final weeks. “Overall, it was a much better-run campaign than it would have been and everybody’s campaign was better than it would have been without ranked-choice voting.”
After an eight-day wait to learn the identity of the party nominee, Maine Democratic Party chairman Phil Bartlett said that Mills “has always been a champion for Maine.”
“We know that she will fight for a fair economy with good-paying jobs, for affordable, accessible health care, and for real solutions to the opioid epidemic and the crisis of skyrocketing childhood hunger in our state,” Bartlett said in a statement. “We know that she will fight to fix the failures of the LePage administration and will work to end the dysfunction that Governor LePage has brought to Augusta by reaching across the aisle to get things done on behalf of hardworking Maine people.”
The ranked-choice process played out largely along the timeline that Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office outlined the week before the June 12 primaries. Because of the logistics of gathering so many ballots in one central location and then loading them into the computers, Dunlap had said results would likely not be available until this week.
On Wednesday, Dunlap said he was pleased with the way his staff handled the challenge of implementing the new system.
“We have the best elections division in the country,” Dunlap said. “Everything came together very nicely, but through a lot of hard work. We’re very pleased that this went so smoothly. I think people can trust the results.”
Likewise, Kyle Bailey with the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, which led the two ballot initiatives to implement the process, called Wednesday a historic day as Maine successfully utilized a system that he says will lead to better, more broadly supported candidates.
“I have confidence in the system,” Bailey said. “It’s the system that we used to tabulate the ranked-choice voting results is the same system that we have relied in Maine for a decade to conduct our elections.”
Janet Mills talks to reporters Wednesday after final ranked-choice vote totals showed she had won the Democratic nomination for governor. At left is Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)