When it comes to voting, there haven’t been many useful innovations, but Maine just may have found one.

When Portland decided to elect a strong mayor with full-time salary, it also went with a “ranked choice” voting system. In use in San Francisco and abroad, ranked choice allows voters not just to pick one candidate, but to rank the entire slate.

In Portland’s case, there were 15 candidates, and I expected a train wreck. Ranked choice aims to create a virtual majority — making sure that the candidate with the most votes also has the broadest support. After ballots are cast, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, with those votes allocated to the second choice candidate, and so on until someone achieves a majority.

Would the system function with so many candidates? Would voters go through the entire list?

My skepticism was unwarranted. True, not every voter filled out the full slate, but many did, and the results are fully representative. On Nov. 8, the top two vote-getters, former state senators Mike Brennan and Ethan Strimling, also finished one-two when all choices were tallied.

It’s important that Portland’s first authoritative mayor in 88 years received a clear showing that he was, indeed, the people’s choice. Majority rule is so important to democracy that it should be honored whenever humanly possible. We often disagree with the party in power, but as long as it maintains majority support, we accept laws we wouldn’t vote for ourselves.

Some insist there’s another way — a runoff between the top two finishers. But there’s a big problem. It isn’t the same electorate: Turnout is invariably smaller, because many voters see it as a do-over.

That was aptly demonstrated by the recent mayoral race in Lewiston, with votes closely divided on the first ballot, with Mark Paradis and Robert Macdonald neck and neck. In the runoff, they switched places, with Macdonald barely ahead —with the complication that Paradis had died in the interim. Had voters chosen him, the seat would have been declared vacant.

Yet neither candidate got as many votes the second time as the first, despite the elimination of three candidates, because turnout was so much lower.

Between the two methods, ranked choice is the hands-down winner. In the future, the two days of vote-counting Portland experienced could be eliminated with new voting machines. The state has conducted a pilot project for early voting, using special machines. Potentially, ranked choice could be used statewide.

And that’s where it’s most needed. In the past nine elections for governor, only two candidates polled a majority — Joe Brennan in 1982, and Angus King in 1998, both re-elections. In the other seven, the winner got a plurality, often not a healthy one.

It began in 1974, when Jim Longley, Sr. won as an independent, with 39 percent in a four-way race. In 1986, John McKernan won his first term with 40 percent, while King in 1994 — facing yet another comeback bid by Brennan —polled just 35 percent. And in 2006, John Baldacci was re-elected with 38 percent— for an incumbent, damning with faint praise.

That brings us to our present pass, where in 2010 Paul LePage was elected with 38 percent. Unlike his low-vote predecessors (except Longley), LePage has been anything but a consensus-builder. Few of the 62 percent who voted for someone else would likely consider LePage even a second choice.

Indeed, his fellow Republicans have gotten frequent heartburn from LePage’s interventions. He desisted last spring after eight GOP senators chastised him. But lately he’s been at it again, attacking the Republican chairs of the Energy and Technology Committee by insisting the committee needed to be replaced, and showing up unannounced at an Appropriations session, later telling reporters he found the proceedings a waste of time.

It’s suggestive that several recent polls found that, were the election held today, Eliot Cutler would win. This makes sense. In the last week before the 2010 election, there was a massive shift of votes from Democrat Elizabeth Mitchell to Cutler, who fell 10,000 votes short of overcoming LePage’s lead.

Cutler, naturally, now supports ranked choice, but it would be a good thing for Maine, too. Our governorship is a powerful office, made more so by term limits on the citizen legislature. The person who holds the office needs majority support. We can’t be sure that is now the case.

While Maine would be a prime candidate for ranked choice, it won’t happen this year, or next. Still, it would be an awfully nice Christmas present someday.


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