Maine could become the first state to swap its traditional election system for one in which the winning candidates for Congress and state offices are selected by ranked-choice voting.

On Monday, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, a state organization backed by national advocates, will submit signed petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office seeking to put the proposal on the November 2016 ballot. If the petition signatures are certified, the measure would appear alongside several other questions on legalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage and a Maine Republican Party-led initiative to overhaul the state’s welfare system and reduce the income tax.

Ranked-choice voting is designed to ensure that the winning candidate receives a majority vote. Advocates say it also ensures that candidates appeal to a cross-section of voters, not just the narrow, active constituencies that often decide party primary contests.

“No longer can you win by turning out a certain excited group of people within your party, but you really have to reach out to moderates, conservatives and progressives within your own party,” said Kyle Bailey, the campaign manager for The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting. “I think that will make a very powerful impact in improving our politics.”

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes cast after the first tally, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters who chose the eliminated candidate have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidate and the ballots are retabulated. This process continues until one candidate has a majority of votes and is declared the winner.

Currently, the candidate who receives the most votes, or a plurality, wins the election. The initiative has the potential to dramatically change how Mainers elect their U.S. senators and representatives, as well as their governors, state senators and state representatives.

“This is a change in which we as voters elect our leaders and we think it’s appropriate for voters to have a chance to weigh in,” Bailey said. “This makes a lot of sense and fits into what we’re trying to do, which is give voters more power and the chance to have their voice heard more clearly and to elect leaders who are more accountable to voters in a representative democracy.”

Advocates argue that the system not only ensures that the winning candidate receives the majority vote, but that there are no so-called spoiler candidates. Voters, they argue, can pick their top choice without fear of wasting their ballot. That’s because their second or third choice could ultimately help decide the winner, even if their first choice is eliminated.


The referendum campaign was launched in October 2014 by former independent state Sen. Dick Woodbury of Yarmouth, and Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. Woodbury, who supported independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler last year, said too much of the 2014 contest centered on spoiler candidates and strategic voting. If Woodbury’s reasoning sounds familiar, it’s because Cutler has been making the same argument since 2010, when he narrowly lost the gubernatorial contest to Gov. Paul LePage. Cutler, labeled a spoiler candidate in 2014, said he would push for ranked-choice voting after he finished third last year.

Ranked-choice voting has been repeatedly debated – and defeated – in the Legislature, largely at the behest of party leaders who have successfully thwarted election changes, including open primaries, that could empower third-party candidates.

A spokeswoman for the Maine Democratic Party did not respond to a request for comment Friday. Rick Bennett, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said the party wouldn’t likely take a position on the initiative. However, he said that ranked-choice voting struck him as a “solution in search of a problem.”

“It doesn’t meet the threshold test for me,” he said. “You’re making a change in the traditional election system, which has served the country quite well. Democracy is a messy matter and any system you have for electing leaders has its pluses and minuses.”

He added, “I don’t see a particular problem that needs solving here. I guess I don’t agree with the premise that the election system is so flawed that people need to spend a lot of time, energy and money doing this.”

However, the call for ranked-choice voting has grown since the 2010 election, when LePage won with 38 percent of the vote.

LePage wasn’t the first candidate to become governor without a majority. In nine of the past 11 Maine governor’s races, all featuring at least one independent candidate, the winner has received less than 50 percent support.

“People feel that that’s a real violation of what a representative democracy is supposed to be,” Bailey said.

He said the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting has received broad support from people of all political persuasions. In November 2014, the group announced it had 36,000 signatures on Election Day, more than half the total needed to put a question on the ballot.

“The breadth and depth of support for this initiative is not like something I’ve seen before,” he said. “This seems to cut across the political spectrum and that makes sense. It’s not about outcomes, but improving the process.”


Ranked-choice voting has been around since 1871. It’s used in countries such as Australia, and in a host of municipalities, including Portland, which adopted a ranked-choice system to elect its mayor in 2011, when 15 candidates qualified for the ballot.

But states have been slow to embrace ranked-choice voting. Maine would be the first to adopt it for congressional, gubernatorial and State House contests. Minnesota and Vermont also are considering legislation that would create ranked-choice voting.

The 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.

Bailey said municipalities wouldn’t bear any costs related to State House races affected by ranked-choice voting. That would fall to the secretary of state, who would oversee the runoff process if one candidate doesn’t get a majority vote after the first count of ballots.

The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting has accrued over $111,000 in donations, including $1,750 from the organization FairVote in Takoma Park, Maryland. FairVote is a national nonprofit that advocates for ranked-choice voting in other states.


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