One of a frequent series of stories examining Maine’s voting system.

Maine voters, for the first time in United States history, will use a ranked-choice ballot to select a president in November.

Also, for the first time since Maine enacted the ranked-choice voting law in 2016, state voters will use the balloting system to determine the winner in an ultra-competitive and closely watched U.S. Senate race.

The state’s four Electoral College votes will be awarded based on the outcomes of ranked-choice balloting in each of the Maine’s two U.S. Congressional districts and on ranked-choice results statewide.

Here’s what you need to know about using your ranked-choice ballot:

How does ranked-choice voting work?

Sometimes known as “instant runoff voting” a ranked-choice voting is only applied in races where there are more than two candidates. The ranked-choice ballot allows you to rank candidates in order of preference. The candidate you like best would receive a first-place ranking, followed by your second favorite candidate and so on.

A candidate wins if they receive a majority of votes. That means more than 50 percent of the vote. If one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the first-place rankings in the first round of counting, that candidate is declared the winner.

If no candidate wins a majority after the first tally, election officials eliminate the last-place finisher from contention and redistribute the votes cast for that candidate based on each of those voters’ second-choice ranking. This process continues – with non-viable candidates being eliminated from the bottom up and their votes reallocated – until someone hits the magic threshold of 50 percent plus one vote. That person is the winner.

How is this different from traditional elections?

Traditional elections determine winners based on which candidate receives the largest number of total votes, even if they don’t get 50 percent of the total vote. Voters select just one candidate for their first choice in a traditional election.

What happens if I only want to vote for one candidate? 

Maine’s ranked-choice law allows voters to rank candidates based on preference but it doesn’t require it. If you only vote for one candidate your ballot will still be counted in the first round and you should rank your preferred candidate first.

You also are not required to rank all of the candidates. You can rank as many or as few as you desire.

What happens if my candidate receives the fewest number of votes in the first round?

Your vote will be counted, but if you don’t rank any of the other candidates your ballot will be considered exhausted and will not be involved in subsequent rounds of counting.

What happens if I rank my preferred candidate in all of the available preference positions?

Your vote will be counted on the first round, and if your candidate moves on to the second round your second-place choice will not be applied. The rules allow each voter to only assign one ranking preference for each candidate.

What happens if I rank two candidates in first place?

This would cause your ballot to be spoiled as those counting votes would have no way to determine which candidate was your preferred candidate and neither candidate would get your vote. Your ballot would also be considered spoiled if you ranked any other candidates in the same position.

What if I rank one candidate first and one candidate last and leave all the places in between unmarked?

Your first place candidate would receive your vote in the first round of counting. In a race with just three slots, you could skip the second one and the third could still be counted. The candidate you placed in last place would receive your vote if that candidate remains in the final round of counting and the previous reallocation of sequential rankings had still not caused any candidate to reach more than 50 percent of the vote. Then your last-place ranked candidate would be awarded your vote, possibly helping them win the election if they are they among the final two candidates.

What happens if I only rank my first- and second-place candidates?

Your first-place candidate would receive your vote in the first round of counting. If they are eliminated, your second-place candidate would then have your vote added to their tally in the subsequent round of counting.

Does all this tabulation take place at my local polling station?

No. Local election officials will only count the first round of votes in ranked-choice elections and determine if any candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. If no candidate reaches more than 50 percent in the first round of counting, all ballots are securely transported to the Secretary of State’s Office in Augusta, where specially programmed vote tabulation machines are used to count the ranked-choice ballots in the subsequent rounds.

This sounds like it could take some time. Will we know who won on election night?

Probably not. If ranked-choice tabulation comes into play it can take some time to transport all those ballots and then process them in Augusta. After a delay in receiving certified local results it took about eight days before it was determined Janet Mills had captured 54 percent of the vote in a ranked-choice Democratic gubernatorial primary in June 2018. It also took about nine days in November 2018 to determine a winner in Maine’s 2nd District Congressional race, when Democrat Jared Golden was declared the winner with 50.5 percent of vote.

Do you have a question about Maine’s election system or how your vote will be counted? Send it to [email protected]

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