Proponents of a citizens’ initiative that aims to bring ranked-choice voting to Maine say they gathered more than 36,000 signatures on Election Day – more than half the total needed to put a question on the ballot.
The group, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, must collect 10 percent of the total number of votes cast during the most recent gubernatorial election, or about 60,000, to force a statewide referendum. If the group wants to put it on the ballot for 2015, the deadline for signatures is Jan. 22, but 2016 is an option as well.
Ranked-choice voting, sometimes called instant-runoff voting, ensures that whoever is elected receives a clear majority of votes. In the past four Maine governor’s races, all featuring at least one independent candidate, the winner has received less than 50 percent support.
With ranked-choice voting, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If there is no clear majority winner after the first ballot, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Then, the votes are tallied again with second-choice votes for the remaining candidates added to the count. The process repeats until a candidate receives at least 50 percent of the total votes tabulated to that point.
“Most of the discussion in the 2014 gubernatorial race was about spoiler candidates, dividing the vote and strategic voting, rather than about issues,” said. Sen. Dick Woodbury, a Yarmouth independent who with Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, is leading the citizens’ initiative. “Our current system works well when there are just two candidates running, but not well at all with more than two candidates.”
Woodbury was a strong supporter of independent Eliot Cutler, a candidate who might have benefited from ranked-choice voting, both in 2010 and perhaps again this year.
Cutler said on election night, after it was evident that he would finish a distant third to Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud, that he would work to help bring ranked-choice voting to Maine.
Rep. Russell said the response to the citizens’ initiative has been strong.
“Over and over, we are hearing from folks who signed the petition that they want an electoral system that embraces our strong independent streak while ensuring we can still vote our hopes, not our fears,” she said.
Proponents have set a target date of 2018 for implementation, timing that is driven partly by technology: The vote-counting machines leased by the state cannot perform ranked-choice calculations. However, the lease on those machines ends in 2017, giving election officials a chance to upgrade to more sophisticated machines for future elections.
The Maine Secretary of State’s Office estimated that implementing ranked-choice voting would cost the state $837,270 in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, and $714,388 in the following fiscal year.
Those costs would cover printing an additional ballot page, updating and leasing new ballot tabulation machines and related equipment, and hiring two contract workers to oversee the vote-counting process.
Russell has introduced ranked-choice voting legislation three times and Woodbury has sponsored one bill. All have failed.
If the citizens initiative is successful, Maine would be the first state in the nation to adopt an alternative vote-counting system for state, gubernatorial and federal elections.
The city of Portland adopted a ranked-choice system to elect its mayor in 2011, when 15 candidates qualified for the ballot.