How ranked-choice voting effort became a partisan flash point

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When then state Rep. Diane Russell first pushed for the Legislature to adopt ranked-choice voting in 2009, she didn’t expect it to be a partisan issue, and it wasn’t. Most of her colleagues in the 124th Legislature – then controlled entirely by her fellow Democrats – were against it, regardless of the party they belonged to, and her resolution to set up a pilot project died without receiving a floor vote.

“I’d looked at the research, and I thought this looked like a better way to vote,” recalls Russell, who had been a national ranked-choice voting campaigner before running for the Legislature and is now a gubernatorial candidate. “But I was too young and idealistic to think you could take a rational idea and actually do it.”

Nine years later, the politics around ranked-choice voting in Maine have become as polarized as any issue in Maine, with legislators splitting on partisan lines over measures that would either suppress or help implement the system approved by voters in 2016. New forensic analysis of that election reveals voters were profoundly polarized in the same way elected officials now are: independents and Democrats overwhelmingly in favor, Republicans largely opposed.

How did a reform effort that seeks to reduce political polarization and vitriol in Maine become another partisan flash point, creating an impasse that threatens to plunge the crucial June 12 primary election into chaos and legal acrimony? With four Republicans and seven Democrats running for governor, the system will likely come into play for both parties, yet a last-minute attempt to provide funds to implement it properly failed Thursday on a largely party-line vote.

The Maine Sunday Telegram spoke with more than a dozen experts on and participants in the ranked-choice voting debate – including boosters and opponents, Republicans, Democrats, and independents – to reveal a suite of interlocking reasons for the stark divide on the issue, from self-interested political calculus and constitutional concerns to wide philosophical differences over the proper role of ordinary voters in setting policy in a representative democracy.

“People are losing sight of the fact that we live in a constitutional republic, not a democracy,” says Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls, one of four Republicans seeking to succeed Gov. Paul LePage and a longtime opponent of ranked-choice voting, which was defeated multiple times in the Legislature before 52 percent of voters supported it in that 2016 ballot measure. “This shows yet again why the citizen’s referendum process needs to be fixed, because you can put whatever you want on the ballot and you can cause as much chaos and confusion as you want as long as you have enough money to defend it.”

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Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, a ranked-choice voting supporter and former head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, disagrees. “A lot of the opposition we’ve seen to RCV from Republicans in the Legislature is rooted in opposition to citizen referenda in general, but the Maine Constitution explicitly says that our power as legislators is derived from the people and clearly lays out the citizen’s referendum and people’s veto processes,” she says, citing Republican-led efforts to undermine successful citizen referenda to expand Medicaid, increase the minimum wage, impose a surtax on the wealthy to fund education, and legalize the sale of marijuana. “I simply disagree that the legislature knows better than the collective will of the voters.”

Voters polarized too

Voters, though, may have been far more polarized on the issue than previously understood, according to recent research by political scientist Jack Santucci, who studied Maine’s 2016 election while completing his doctorate at Georgetown University.

Santucci, who is now a research fellow at the nonpartisan Democracy Fund’s Elections Program, applied a well-known academic statistical model to Maine’s precinct-level voting results to find correlations between presidential and ranked-choice voting ballot question results on the 2016 ballot, yielding an estimate of partisan support for the referendum.

The results were shockingly stark. About 82 percent of Hillary Clinton voters supported ranked-choice voting that day, while 83 percent of Donald Trump voters opposed it, with a margin of error in both samples of less than 3 percent. (Supporters of libertarian Gary Johnson, like Clinton voters, approved the ballot measure by 82 percent. The sample size for Green Party candidate Jill Stein was too small to provide an accurate estimate.)

Santucci did this analysis in an effort to test his hypothesis that electoral reforms get enacted when one of the major parties concludes that vote splitting has been causing it to lose elections it would otherwise win. On the national stage, the first great outburst of reform efforts was driven by Republicans upset by the result of the 1912 election, when Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party run split their vote, allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to capture the White House with less than 42 percent of the vote. Many liberal-minded cities – San Francisco; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Minneapolis; and Portland, Maine, to name a few – adopted ranked-choice voting as part of a wave triggered by the 2000 presidential election, when many believed Green Party candidate Ralph Nader ciphoned enough liberal votes to tip Florida – and the Electoral College – to George W. Bush.

Maine, Santucci says, fits this pattern, with Democrats coming around to ranked-choice voting after concluding their chances of wining the governorship in 2010 and 2014 were lessened by the presence of third-party candidates who collectively drew more support from their candidate than from LePage.

“That’s the simplest explanation for what’s going on up there, that swings in partisanship are connected with each party’s expectations of whether this will help or hurt them,” Santucci says. “Opponents might say various things about how this is complicated or unconstitutional or that we shouldn’t rush into it headlong, but those may be justifications for their behavior after the fact.”

University of Maine political scientist Amy Fried agrees that Democrats have likely rallied around the reform in reaction to LePage’s 2010 victory – with just under 38 percent of the vote, he edged out centrist independent Eliot Cutler by 1.7 points in a five-way race – but she thinks their reasoning is mistaken. “Having ranked-choice voting wouldn’t necessarily mean that someone like LePage wouldn’t win the governorship, but I think that idea has been adopted by the LePage resistance,” she says. “With the anti-Trump current in 2018, it might help Democrats, but that doesn’t mean in future there wouldn’t be a time where it would benefit Republicans.”

CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTIONS

Ranked choice is supposed to eliminate strategic voting and angst over supporting a “spoiler” candidate. Under the system, voters receive a ballot on which they can rank candidates for an office by order of preference. If a candidate wins a majority of the first-choice votes, the contest is over and that person will be declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and each of their voters’ second choices are added to the tallies of each of the remaining candidates. If there still isn’t a majority, the candidate in last is again removed, and their supporter’s next-highest ranked choices are added to the vote tallies of the survivors. The process continues until someone has a majority or all ballots are exhausted.

Voters approved the adoption of the system in 2016, but it’s been a wild ride since, as legislators, election officials, and the courts have confronted constitutional problems with the measure and have thus far failed to resolve them. In October, legislators passed a law spearheaded by Mason that effectively killed the system, but shortly thereafter supporters of the system collected enough signatures to put a partial “people’s veto” of that bill on this June’s ballot, which also had the effect of suspending the new law. Last week a judge ordered Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap to continue preparing to use the system pending the court’s final ruling, which Dunlap says must be made by April 13 to allow time for ballots to be printed and distributed.

If the court doesn’t intervene, the new system is poised to be used in the June primaries for all offices and – if the people’s veto measure is also successful that day – in the general election contest for Maine’s two U.S. House seats and the U.S. Senate seat held by incumbent Angus King. General election contests for governor and Legislature can’t use the new system without altering language in the Maine Constitution that explicitly requires conventional, plurality voting.

Lawmakers polarized

Legislative efforts to fix and implement the system have become as politically polarized as the 2016 vote itself. Mason’s bill to delay and effectively kill the reform received just 2 Democratic votes in Senate and 11 in the House. Democratic-sponsored bills to alter the constitutional language and to appropriate funds to implement the system have faced unified Republican opposition.

Last week’s move by the Senate to intervene against ranked-choice voting in an ongoing lawsuit received unanimous Republican support as well, and one of the four Democrats who crossed the aisle to do so says they all were actually acting to mitigate the potential damage to the reform effort. The initial version of the bill – which Republicans could pass on their own – had more open-ended language about when and how the Senate could seek to intervene, according to Sen. Mark Dion, D-Portland.

“The Republicans agreed to amend the language if some Democrats would join them so they had the ability to say there was some bipartisanship,” says Dion, who is also running for governor. “When you’re in the minority, you may not win, but you can stop a bad law from being worse.”

But participants from all sides of the ranked-choice debate disagree that they are acting based on self-interested partisan calculus, even if some believe their opponents are.

“I think it’s that they didn’t like the fact that Paul LePage got elected and this was their answer to making sure that someone like Paul LePage didn’t get elected again,” Mason says of Democrats who support the reform. “I don’t think we should be basing our election system on a grudge held by leftist Democrats.”

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, agrees, and says Republican voters and legislators are acting primarily out of constitutional concerns rather than a concern over political disadvantage. “I really don’t think there’s an advantage to one party or the other, but it’s very important that we don’t push things toward a constitutional crisis where we end up in lawsuits and throw elections into question,” he says. “It’s no secret that our voters have a very great reverence for both the Maine and U.S. constitutions.”

Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, suspects Republicans are the ones looking at partisan advantage. “Republicans are seeing a loss of support across the state and they feel their best chance of winning is by dividing the electorate and exploiting those divisions,” he says. “Their candidates and leaders are becoming increasingly extreme in this era of Trump and LePage and I think they’re afraid that with the implementation of ranked-choice voting they will have a very hard time winning elections.”

Could it strengthen both parties?

Peter Mills, a former Republican state senator and two-time gubernatorial candidate who backed the ranked-choice voting ballot effort, says both parties would actually prosper under the new system, which would advantage more moderate candidates in party primary contests. “It would improve the likelihood that you would be nominating your strongest candidate for office in the general election, which would strengthen their standing with the electorate and in civic culture,” he argues. “Right now the parties seem hellbent to do as much as they can to destroy public interest in their success by driving themselves to the extremes.”

For the record, Mills, a moderate, thinks he and the rest of the 2010 Republican primary field would have been trounced by LePage, ranked-choice voting or not, and that the governor would also have won the 2010 and 2014 general elections under the new system. But Mills also thinks he would have won the 2006 primary and defeated Gov. John Baldacci in the general election.

(A simulation sponsored by the Bangor Daily News concluded LePage would have lost the 2010 general election under ranked-choice voting but would have still won the 2014 contest.)

“There’s broad perspective that this is an effort to rerun races in which LePage was successful, but I don’t think that holds up,” Mills says. “People underestimate what LePage succeeded in doing or they’ve forgotten what that achievement was.”

Diane Russell

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  • Tom Oxford

    unconstitutional , end of story. This is legal battle in the making

    • The’BunksAreBest

      How is it unconstitutional? If it were, it would not have been brought to a vote – and if it had been by mistake, it would have been challenged under the law. It has not been challenged.

      • Tom Oxford

        I did not say it they did: Ranked-choice voting runs afoul of Maine Constitution, Supreme Court says