Two Portland-area lawmakers will roll out a ballot initiative petition this week to enact ranked-choice voting in Maine.

If the initiative is successful and voters enact it, Maine would become the first state in the nation with an alternative vote-counting system for state, gubernatorial and federal elections.

“I think the voters are hungry for a system that allows them to vote their hopes,” said Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, who joined with Sen. Richard Woodbury, an independent from Yarmouth, to propose the initiative. “Under the current ‘winner-take-all-system,’ the entire system is about polling and spoilers. That’s not what’s great about democracy.”

In an interview Monday, Russell, who is running for re-election, and Woodbury, who has decided not to seek another term, said ranked-choice voting offers a fairer way for Mainers to choose their politicians, while avoiding so-called “spoiler candidates” and strategic voting, where people cast ballots against a candidate they dislike instead of for a candidate they like.

If enacted, the ranked-choice system would be used to elect the governor, U.S. senators and congressional representatives, along with state legislators.

In a ranked-choice system, voters assign a number corresponding with their interest in a candidate, with first-choice candidates receiving a “1,” second-choice candidates a “2,” and so on for all the candidates in a particular race.


To determine a winner, election officials tabulate all the first-ranked choices and then eliminate the candidate who is last on the list, redistributing the second choice of the voters who chose the candidate who came in last.

This process is then repeated, with the candidate with the fewest votes having his supporters’ second choices redistributed to the rest of the field until one candidate wins a simple majority of the overall number of votes cast in the election.

Portland adopted a ranked-choice system to elect its mayor in 2011, when 15 candidates qualified for the ballot.

Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a Maryland-based nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for changes in voter laws, said the emphasis on voters’ second-choice candidate has changed the tenor of races where ranked-choice voting has been used.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the mayor and city officials are selected that way, candidates have been forced to appeal to a wider audience, focusing on issues instead of attacks, he said.

“(Candidates) say, ‘I know not everyone agrees with me as a first choice, but I can make a case to be a second choice,'” Richie said. “It’s much different than ‘everyone else is a jerk.'”


Woodbury and Russell said they expect to receive petition sheets from the Secretary of State’s Office on Tuesday and will begin collecting signatures immediately, including at the polls on Election Day, which is Nov. 4.

They said they are targeting a 2018 implementation date. The timing 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 to implement ranked-choice voting, it will cost the state $837,270 in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, and $714,388 in the following fiscal year. Those costs will cover printing an additional ballot page, updating and leasing new ballot tabulation machines and related equipment, and hiring two contract workers to oversee the ranked-choice vote counting process.

Between them, the legislators have proposed some form of ranked-choice voting before the Legislature four times – Russel three times in six years, and Woodbury once during the most recent session. There were other, early attempts, too, but they all failed.

To qualify as a ballot question, the petition must be signed by at least 10 percent of the number of voters who turn out Nov. 4. Although that number won’t be known until after the election, Woodbury estimated that, to be successful, 60,000 verified voter signatures will be needed, meaning the petitioners will have to collect roughly 75,000 signatures to allow for errors, illegible signatures and other abnormalities.


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