When voters have questions, it’s natural they turn to their local municipal officials for answers.

That’s exactly what Bethel Town Manager Christine Landes is afraid of when it comes to ranked choice voting because she doesn’t have any answers — and she doubts anyone else does, either.

“It’s a confusing mess,” Landes said. “Maybe the idea is good, but it just needs to be a little clearer. The average person in Maine is just not going to understand this.”

Voters go to the polls in November to settle six ballot questions. The fifth question on the ballot would create ranked choice voting for state races in Maine. That would include Maine’s U.S. senators, delegates to the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislators — both state senators and representatives — and the governor.

Maine would be the first state to offer ranked choice voting for state races, although some cities and towns in California, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota and New Mexico have used the method for municipal races. Portland began using ranked choice voting for mayoral elections in 2011.

The new rule would kick in when there are three or more candidates, creating an instant runoff if no candidate gets a clear majority for any given seat.

Rather than picking their favorite and being done with the ballots, voters would see an array of choices. They get to vote for their favorite candidate, then their second choice, then their third, fourth and fifth choices, if there are that many candidates.

According to an analysis by the state Attorney General’s Office, ranked voting would be done in rounds.

• If a candidate gets a majority of first choice votes — at least 50 percent of the total votes cast for the seat — that candidate wins. However, if there is no majority candidate the instant runoff begins.

• In the second round, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and their votes are distributed among the remaining candidates, based on who their supporters selected as their second choice. If those additional votes are enough to push a remaining candidate over the 50 percent threshold, that candidate wins. If not, it goes to a third round.

• Again in the third round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are distributed among the remaining candidates based on who their supporters selected as their next favorite choice. If a voter’s second favorite has already been eliminated, their third favorite gets their votes.

Counting continues, round after round, until one candidate reaches 50 percent.

Proponents say the method would let people vote for their favorite candidates rather than casting their vote for the lesser of two evils. Proponents also say it would lead to friendlier campaigns since candidates would try to appeal to their opponents’ supporters as well as their own.

But it would make counting votes more complex.

First round counting would be done by local officials with their local equipment. But second round counting and beyond would be done by the Secretary of State’s office in Augusta. Local officials would send digital images of all of their ballots to the state on memory sticks or thumb drives via the state police.

“They have to stay in secure custody,” Kristen Muszynski, director of communication for the Maine Secretary of State’s office. “They must be kept in a way that no tampering could go on, even though they’d be kept in locked boxes. It would be a big undertaking.”

Each municipality would keep their ballots unless there is a call for a recount in a state race. Then, all those ballots would be brought to Augusta for hand counting.

“So, if there is a recount in a statewide ranked choice ballot, it’s going to be a very extensive process,” she said. “We can’t use the computers then because we are hand counting. But we’d use the same process.”

There are complications with the rule itself. For example, Maine’s constitution calls for a plurality of votes to elect someone to a state seat. That means that candidates don’t need to reach a 50 percent majority to win but just need more votes than their competitors.

Muszynski said that disagreement means that ranked-choice voting could end up in court if voters approve it this year, and could require a second vote to amend the state constitution before it becomes law.

“That’s our opinion and the Attorney General’s opinion right now,” Muszynski said. “I know the proponents say it’s not unconstitutional and that it would all be OK, but the Attorney General has taken the opposite position. So it could end up in court.”

Geoff Hermann of the Maine Municipal Association said the MMA’s Executive Committee is torn on the issue and voted not to declare an opinion.

“There were people who supported it, and then people on the other side,” Hermann said. “Some were worried it would make people more skeptical about voting, or that there would be increased management required on the local level.”

No matter what, it’s going to require more work on the local level, he said.

“People will come up to the clerks and ask, ‘Do I really have to vote for somebody I don’t want?'” Hermann said. “There could be a sense of befuddlement and it will be up to the clerks entirely, to introduce people to the concept and to help them figure out their ballots.”

Landes said she expects voter confusion and a lot of additional training for her election workers and volunteers in Bethel.

“The ladies in my office will have to be trained,” she said. “That’s not what they want to do. They want to go in, check peoples’ names on a list, give them a ballot and write the totals off of a tape at the end of the night.”

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Question 5: Do you want to allow voters to rank their choices of candidates in elections for U.S. Senate, Congress, Governor, State Senate, and State Representative, and to have ballots counted at the state level in multiple rounds in which last-place candidates are eliminated until a candidate wins by majority?

Question 5: Who’s for it, Who’s against it?

Yes on 5:

Maine Democratic Party
Libertarian Party of Maine
Maine Green Independent Party
League of Women Voters of Maine
Maine Conservation Voters
Maine Small Business Coalition
Maine Student Action
Represent.Us

No on 5:

Gov. Paul LePage
Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden
Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough
Don Roberts, former Augusta city councilor

Ranked choice along the front lines: Municipal officials’ takes on Question 5.

“I don’t see it being a big deal. I think the idea of changing the process is more intimidating than the actual process. I think it is all doable. You have to pay attention when you’re counting ballots, anyways.”
— Susan Runes, Sumner town clerk 

“Ranked choice voting could create added municipal expense in the form of elections clerks and poll set up time, should a second election be required. However, if this the choice of our citizens, we will certainly deal with it professionally.”
— Diane Dunham, Wilton town clerk 

“I’m not comfortable with the way they are coming to a victor in the ranked choice. Granted, I only have to vote for one but I don’t like the idea of voting for multiple candidates and my vote might not even count in the end.”
— Vern Maxfield, Woodstock town manager

“I would expect results to be delayed because of all the reporting measures we would still need to do in addition to what we already do. Have no idea what the cost for something like that would be. I do have some concerns about the process and how it would be handled.”
— Melissa St. John, Harrison town clerk 

“To me, I really don’t see how this really is any different than what we already are doing. You still have that choice to choose who you want in that office. (But) I do think it could be confusing for the elderly.”
— Liz Knox, Paris town clerk 

“We hand count now, if the ranked choice voting passes, it will be longer counting hours at the end of the night for the counters. I’m not sure how this is going to be implemented, but it certainly will be more difficult on the counting end of elections.”
— Melinda Averill, Andover town clerk and tax collector 

“We can dare say that it’s a real shame that somebody lost an election now that have to change the rules to make it so you can win. I mean, why did it (ranked choice voting) come up? It looks to me like somebody lost an election and now they want to make it so it’s more fair.”
— Donald Hutchins, Canton selectman


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