AUGUSTA — As politicians prepare to face the first-ever congressional election using ranked-choice voting, most admit they have almost no idea how it will affect the results.

Ask a political insider how the new voting system will weigh on the primary campaigns waged by Democrats seeking to face Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin this year and the answer is typically a shrug.

Most everyone readily admits to having no idea whom it will help and whom it might hurt.

“Ranked-choice voting is a great idea,” said Democratic 2nd District congressional hopeful Craig Olson of Islesboro. “But I am no expert, so I am unsure as to how it will affect the primary.”

But the new voting system likely to be in place for the June 12 gubernatorial and congressional primaries is likely to play a role in the outcome.

Assuming the Secretary of State’s office certifies signatures handed in recently, the primaries will mark the first time any state has relied on ranked-choice voting to pick statewide candidates for anything — with one exception.

North Carolina once used ranked-choice voting for an election to fill a judicial vacancy, a move chosen to avoid the possibility of a costly runoff race.

Given that nothing quite like Maine’s experiment has ever happened, not even political scientists have much data to rely on as they eye the possible consequences.

But Drew Spencer Penrose, law and policy director for the Maryland-based FairVote, said there has been some research on ranked-choice voting in municipal elections.

Penrose said that research has found that the new voting system leads to “measurably more civil campaigns.”

Penrose said candidates still have to differentiate themselves from one another, but they do it by citing positive ideas rather than going negative.

It also appears, he said, that candidates in ranked-choice voting races put more effort into direct contact with voters and recruiting volunteers instead of paying for radio and television spots.

That gives them more opportunity to reach out to individual voters and assess where they stand, giving candidates a chance to earn a top spot in someone’s rankings.

Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat who’s running for Congress, said he does not feel strongly that it will matter much one way or another.

But, he said, he was glad to support the new system and he sees “a lot of enthusiasm” among voters for it.

Golden said he plans to keep trying to build coalitions and press for a majority of the vote. He said there is “a good chance” ranked-choice voting may help him get there.

Congressional hopeful Tim Rich, a Bar Harbor cafe owner, said he sees a possible “dark side” to the new process.

Rich said the new system may encourage candidates “to be less honest and/or genuinely themselves because everyone is vying to make sure they are at least a second choice and, therefore, don’t want to make anyone angry, even if they disagree. It incentivizes bland and generic candidates.”

It might also discourage candidates from taking stands that differ from a party’s platform, he said, even if they think it is wrong.

Rich said he is worried that “no one wants to take any positions because it’s going to alienate people” because every candidate has to worry more than ever about angering those who care deeply about a particular issue or, in a new political twist, irritating the followers of his foes.

Candidate Jonathan Fulford, a Monroe builder, thinks ranked-choice voting will prove an advantage for him.

He said people tend to vote geographically in a primary — picking a local favorite first — so somebody with a strong grass-roots campaign across the entire sprawling, mostly rural district could wind up as the second choice of many. Fulford hopes that will work to his advantage.

In years past, voting in any particular race was pretty simple: Pick somebody to win and hope they do.

In the June primaries, though, it appears that voters will have the opportunity to indicate their favorite candidate and then rank the rest of them in descending order.

In the congressional primary, that would mean each voter would rank the five Democrats from best to worst. Presumably, there would be quite a diversity of opinion on how they ought to be ranked.

Rather than simply declaring whomever gets the most votes the winner, ranked-choice voting requires that whomever emerges on top secure the support of more than half the voters.

So if the candidate with the most votes falls short of a majority, the contender who is in last place would be eliminated and all of the ousted challenger’s votes would be redistributed to whomever the voter picked second.

That process continues until somebody gets more than 50 percent of the tally.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting, which Mainers approved in a 2016 referendum, said the new voting system will not solve all that is wrong with politics, but it will help.

They said it will encourage voters to pick the candidate they genuinely like best, ensure that everyone’s vote matters, provide more choices and discourage negative campaigning, since all of the contenders have good reason to treat competitors gently so they do not wind up the last choice of many voters.

David Farmer, a political and media consultant in Portland who is working with congressional candidate Lucas St. Clair, said it is difficult to predict how ranked-choice voting will affect the primary.

“Democratic voters are highly engaged this cycle,” he said, and focused on the need to defeat Poliquin, a two-term incumbent, when the Nov. 6 general election rolls around.

Farmer said he is “not sure that ranked-choice voting will change the way the candidates treat one another, which has been very respectful so far, or conduct themselves.”

But one certainty, he said, “is that all of the campaigns will need to add an element to their voter outreach plans to ensure voters have good information on the new process and how it works.”

“Regardless of whether it helps or hurts any particular candidates,” Farmer said, “voters have made it pretty clear that they want to give ranked-choice voting a chance.”

He added that for campaigns, “not having certainty about the election rules is a bigger challenge than a definitive answer one way or the other.”

“Ultimately, however, the winner will be decided by who best connects with voters and makes the strongest case for support,” Farmer said.

Golden said one concern about ranked-choice voting is that he does not see much support among legislative Republicans for funding the election properly, which means some municipalities would not have machines to count the ballots quickly

That may mean that primary results would not be known quickly, perhaps leaving the outcome uncertain for weeks about who the candidates will be in November for governor, U.S. Senate and the 2nd District U.S. House seat.

Golden said he can live with that, but voters may find it frustrating.

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A sample ballot from the Maine League of Women Voters shows how ranked-choice voting works.


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