Ranked-choice and the instant-runoff tradition in small Maine towns

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No doubt the best known and most historic feature of Maine elections last month was introduction of ranked-choice voting, making us the first in the nation to put it to the test in a statewide election.

But the concept of “instant runoff” is actually deeply rooted in a more than 230-year-old practice in many local elections in Maine. (Ranked-choice is frequently referred to as “instant-runoff” because it does not entail holding a separate election and does, once all ballots are transported to a centralized location, result in a mere 30-minute procedure by which the majority vote outcome is established.)

Though the advent of the procedure did make its debut in city elections in Maine in 2011, it was not, by any means, the first time that either Portland or for that matter other municipalities in the state had called upon an instant-runoff procedure.

The law – which is still on the books in Maine towns with fewer than 4,000 inhabitants who nominate officials “from the floor” — traces its roots to a time when Maine was once part of Massachusetts.

Enacted at least as early as 1786, it stayed in effect when Maine became a state in 1820 and continues to be applicable to a number of Maine communities even today.

Just a day after the outcome of Maine’s statewide ranked-choice voting had been tabulated, for example, Phillips – a community of just over 1,000 residents located halfway between Farmington and Rangeley, invoked it in the election of one member of its three-member Board of Selectmen. In the initial vote, Nick Caton a lifelong Phillips resident and local carpenter received 43 votes in his challenge to board chair and incumbent Lincoln Haines — Caton winning 43 votes, Haines 35 and a third candidate being awarded eight.

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Within the space of just a few minutes, however, moderator Mike Ellis called for a second vote since no candidate received a majority. In this form of the instant- runoff procedure, Caton gained ground, picking up enough votes so that he emerged the majority winner.

Though the process of determining the winner in this type of plebiscite is not by any means identical to ranked-choice voting, its underlying mission is virtually identical — namely, to ensure that the winning candidate ultimately receives majority support. And because of the open and almost impromptu procedure involved, is one that also carries with it the same advantages of ranked-choice, namely, swift deliberations in a system that does not require the protracted entanglements of a separately-held election weeks or months down the road.

Though the recent Phillips situation is typical of both runoff as well as ranked- choice elections in that the leading vote-getter in the initial count wound up being confirmed in the runoff, there are instances here in Maine that do break from this pattern.

In 2008 in New Sharon, James Smith who had been the town’s First Selectman for over 40 years was standing for re-election. Opposed by two challengers, Larry Donald and Spencer Thompson, Smith prevailed in the initial round of voting. In the runoff, however, Donald edged ahead, picking up votes that had previously gone to the third-place candidate. The final outcome was Donald ahead of Smith 128-to-112.

(In the same meeting it took four ballots to determine the winner of the Third Selectman’s contest, though in that one the plurality winner, incumbent Russell Gardner, stayed in the lead in each of the ballots involved.)

In Kingfield, a similar outcome to the Donald Smith-New Sharon contest occurred a year later in 2009. This was when Ernest Meldrum, Merv Wilson and Scott Hoisington contended for one of the three seats in an open contest for its Board of Selectmen. The initial tabulations had Meldrum in the lead with Wilson and Hoisington finishing second and third. Hoisington then announced that he was withdrawing in favor of Wilson, who in turn moved ahead of Meldrum in the re-vote that occurred just 10 minutes later.

Though when introduced in Maine well over two centuries ago, the instant-runoff procedure was applicable to all communities in Maine, today the procedures are applicable in only about 10 percent of Maine’s 500 municipalities. Phillips, Kingfield, New Vineyard, Avon and Temple have the instant-runoff, for example. New Sharon dropped the procedure earlier this year in part because the instant- runoff process in Maine towns does not, as a practical matter, provide for its use by absentee voters.

To be sure, this type of practice is not practical in most places. This is because it requires the personal assembly in a single meeting room of all who turn out to vote. This would of course not be possible in most larger towns or cities of Maine. Portland’s Cross Center, for example, could not likely host in an orderly fashion, deliberations of that city’s more than 50,000 registered voters.

The longtime existence of the procedure in Maine and its continuing vitality in a number of the state’s communities are reminders, however, that the local laboratories of our state’s democracies are venerable illustrations of its use.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]

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