The election of Paul LePage with 38 percent of the vote means Maine’s next governor won’t take office with the support of the majority of voters — a situation that has occurred in six of the last seven gubernatorial elections.

In the last 28 years, only Angus King captured a majority, in 1998.

Some people, including Eliot Cutler, an independent who finished second last week in the five-way gubernatorial race, say it’s time to reform the system so Maine’s next governor can better represent the consensus of voters.

Cutler said the state should consider runoff elections, to be held if no candidate wins a majority in the general election. Two states, Georgia and Louisiana, hold runoff elections for governor. And last week, California voters approved runoff elections for governor starting in 2014.

Adding a state election would be expensive. It would cost the state about $200,000 to print and distribute the ballots, and it would cost Maine’s 503 municipalities several million dollars, said Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

That’s why there is more interest in Maine in holding instant runoff elections. An instant runoff would produce a majority winner and save money by requiring only one election, Dunlap said.

Proponents of that idea point to Portland, where voters last week approved a system known as ranked choice voting for electing the city’s mayor.

The system is essentially a series of runoff elections, tallied in rounds. A winner is declared when one candidate gets the majority of votes in a round.

The League of Young Voters has been pushing the idea, and the League of Women Voters of Maine is studying whether to endorse it.

State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, who has tried and failed to get the Legislature to fund a pilot project, said she plans to submit a bill again on ranked choice voting.

She said the system would produce winners with majority support while changing the tenor of campaigns.

She said candidates would avoid negative campaigning because they would be hunting for second- and third-place votes in addition to first-place votes.

In this year’s governor’s race, Democrat Libby Mitchell, who came in a distant third, never would have attacked Cutler in political ads, and Democrats wouldn’t have distributed mailers accusing Cutler of helping corporations export jobs to China, Russell said.

“They would have said (to voters), ‘We respect that you support Eliot Cutler, but we are asking that Libby be your second choice,’” Russell said.

With ranked choice voting, Cutler most likely would have won the election because he was the most popular second choice of Mitchell voters, said Scott Ruffner, a real estate broker in Bangor who serves on the platform committee of the Maine Democratic Party.

To illustrate how ranked choice voting works, Ruffner pointed to the five-way gubernatorial race.

The first round would be just like last week’s election, with LePage getting 38 percent, Cutler 37 percent, Mitchell 19 percent, independent Shawn Moody 5 percent and independent Kevin Scott 1 percent.

In the second round, Scott would be eliminated. The remaining candidates would get the second-choice votes cast for them on Scott’s ballots.

In the third round, Moody would be eliminated, and the second-choice votes on his ballots would be redistributed. In the fourth round, Mitchell would be eliminated, and the second-choice votes on her ballots would be redistributed.

At that point, Cutler would have been the winner, Ruffner said, because Cutler, a moderate who was supported more by Democrats than Republicans, would have had a larger share of Mitchell’s second-choice votes than LePage.

Rep. Joan Nass, R-Acton, who served on the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee when Russell submitted her bill two years ago, said nobody on the committee supported it.

She said it would be unfair to give a voter’s second or third choice the same weight as his first choice.

“Your first vote should be the vote that counts,” she said.

It’s unclear how much it would cost to prepare municipalities for ranked choice voting. Dunlap said one study pegged the startup cost at $9 million.

Rob Richie of FairVote, a nonprofit that promotes ranked choice voting, said it would cost $30,000 to $40,000 because the state is already buying new voting machines. He said the state should stipulate that the winning bidder provide machines that can tally ranked choice voting elections.

Because Portland will use the new system for its high-profile mayoral election next year, Mainers will see how it works and become more comfortable with the idea, Russell said.

In effect, Portland is serving as a pilot project for the state, she said.

But getting the Republican-controlled Legislature and the new Republican governor to support ranked choice voting seems unlikely, Dunlap said.

“It’s an old joke, that election reform is something proposed by people who lose elections,” he said. “For people who won, the system works for them, and they like to keep it the way it is.”

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com