AUGUSTA — Maine is about to embark on a voting system never before used in a major statewide election anywhere in the United States.
With the announcement Monday from the secretary of state’s office that supporters of ranked-choice voting submitted enough valid signatures, the June 12 primaries in Maine are suddenly more than just a way for political parties to pick their candidates.
They are also a first-ever experiment in a method of voting that could lead to different outcomes and perhaps a different style of campaigning. It is impossible to say whom it helps.
Candidates in the congressional and gubernatorial primaries admit they are not sure what impact ranked choice voting will have. But some, at least, think it may make rivals treat one another more gently.
That is because voters will have the opportunity to pick their favorite candidate, as always, but also rank the rest of the contenders in order from best to worst. Those running for office will have a better shot at winning if they generally rate highly in the rankings and rarely are selected for the bottom of the list.
Democratic gubernatorial contender Diane Russell, for instance, told Lewiston Democrats at a Sunday caucus that “if you’re already supporting someone else, fine. I hope you put me for your second-place vote.”
Russell was among the leaders of the effort to get a ranked-choice voting referendum on the 2016 ballot, where Mainers approved it, as well as forcing a new round of petitions to undo the Legislature’s attempt to delay and perhaps kill its implementation.
The people’s veto campaign to force the state to move forward with ranked-choice voting submitted more than 70,000 signatures Feb. 2. It needed 61,123 to require the use of the new system for the primaries. At the same time, the public will have a chance to renew its backing for ranked-choice voting since it will again appear on the ballot
The secretary of state’s office said that 66,687 of the 77,305 signatures submitted were valid, many more than the minimum required.
“There’s just no stopping the Maine people,” Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, said in a prepared statement.
“During the coldest months of the year, the Maine people collected at least 66,687 valid signatures in 88 days to restore ranked-choice voting and insist on more voice and more choice in our democracy,” Bailey said.
Ranked-choice voting sounds harder than it actually is.
For a simple example of how it works, consider the ranked-choice voting straw poll that the Lewiston Democrats held on Sunday for caucus goers to indicate their gubernatorial preferences.
The 53 people who participated were given a ballot that had the names of each of the 11 people seeking to become the Democratic candidate for governor. They were told to rank their preferences from one to 11.
To win, somebody had to emerge with at least 27 votes, a majority of the ones cast.
When the votes were initially counted, Attorney General Janet Mills emerged with 25, just shy of a majority, while former House Speaker Mark Eves collected 14 and businessman Adam Cote rounded up 10. State Sen. Mark Dion and lobbyist Betsy Sweet each got two. The others did not get any first place votes.
At that point, those with two votes were dropped from contention and the ballots of anyone who voted for them were cast instead for those voters’ second picks.
That results in Mills, Eves and Cote each picking up a single voter. The other voter apparently did not make any picks that included one of the remaining candidates.
So in the third round, Cote was dropped since he was in last place and his votes redistributed to the remaining candidates. That left a final outcome of 32 for Mills and 20 for Eves.
Supporters of the system argue it lets voters select their most-desired candidate without having to worry it might boost the odds of a contender they do not want to see win, effectively giving people more options and opening the door for a wider variety of victors. It also ensures the winner ultimately receives a majority of the votes.
Russell said her aim was “to put power back in the hands of everyday voters.”
It is hard to say, though, what will actually happen.
Democratic congressional hopeful Lucas St. Clair said the ranked-choice system “makes me want to be civil” to opponents.
Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat who is also taking aim at the 2nd District U.S. House seat, said he is not sure whether candidates will treat each more gently. He said the answer to that will be more clear in May, when the campaigns are drawing closer to the finish line.
Another contender for the U.S. House seat, Monroe builder Jonathan Fulford, said he thinks it will help him because he is creating a strong grassroots presence that is more geographically diverse than his opponents.
One of the most pressing issues connected to ranked-choice voting is how best to make it work.
Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said that his office needs more than a $1 million in extra funding to press ahead with the new system effectively.
But the Legislature so far has not shown much willingness to cough up any additional cash, though it may prove more ready now that Dunlap has certified the signatures.
Golden, the assistant majority leader in the state House, said it is time for the Legislature to pony up.
“I have voted in support of ranked-choice voting every step of the way, from the ballot box to the House floor, and I am encouraged by the number of signatures the supporters of the people’s veto were able to generate,” he said in a prepared statement.
“The primary this June will be the first major test”of the system, he said, so it is important to ensure the secretary of state “has the resources necessary to make this election a success.”
“I believe it is our responsibility to make sure that the referendum process is respected and that ranked-choice voting goes as smoothly as possible,” he said. “The time for opposition is over and it’s now time for all lawmakers to do what’s best for this state.”
Dunlap told a crowd at Bates College last week that if he does not get more money, his office will find a way to get the job done — though it could be tough.
“We’re going to get there,” Dunlap said.