If you are confused about ranked-choice voting, it’s not your fault.

The on-again, off-again referendum appears to be back on again for the June primary election, and opponents are doing everything they can to make you as mixed up as possible.

The legislative process that got us here might be a mess, but the idea behind the referendum is quite simple.

Here it is: Ranked-choice voting is a system in which the candidate with the most support wins.

Here’s how it works: In races with more than two candidates, voters pick their favorite as they always have, and then – if they want – they can pick a second favorite, and if they haven’t run out of candidates, they can pick a third, and so on. Voters rank as many or as few as they like.

The first-place votes are counted and if someone gets a majority (50 percent plus one vote), the election is over and the candidate wins. If the leader falls short of 50 percent, the last place candidate is eliminated and his second place votes are distributed to the candidates still in the race. The votes are counted again and if there is still no majority the process continues.


It’s basically a series of runoffs, but instead of having to keep coming back for another election, you cast all your votes at once.

Most of the time, the winner of the first round wins the election, but there’s a chance that someone could move into the lead in later rounds if they have appeal for the supporters of other candidates. Opponents are trying to make it look like some devious attempt to make winners out of losers. Look out for these arguments:

“It’s unconstitutional.”

Sort of. The Maine Constitution says that elections for governor and Legislature must be decided by a plurality. In an advisory opinion, the state Supreme Court wrote that you could not use ranked-choice voting in those races. Case closed, right?

Wrong. There are other state elections that are not mentioned in the state constitution, including elections for U.S. House and Senate, and the party primaries held in June. There is no reason why those elections couldn’t go forward with the new system if the voters say – as they have – that’s the way they want it.

And the constitution didn’t come down from a mountain with Moses. It has been amended many times.


The plurality language was added 50 years after Maine’s original constitution was ratified. The Founders were smart enough to know that they couldn’t think of everything. Legislators had plenty of time since receiving the supreme court’s advice to send another constitutional amendment out to the people. They just chose not to.

 “They will throw out your vote.”

You may have seen a video on social media that makes the case that ranked-choice voting disenfranchises voters because not every ballot makes it from one round to the next. Ballots become “exhausted” when a candidate is eliminated, and some of the ballots in that candidate’s column don’t record votes for anyone else still in the race.

The process continues with fewer active ballots, which lowers the number of votes a candidate needs to get past the 50 percent mark.

This presented as some kind of scandal, but think about it: That’s not “throwing out your vote,” it’s called “voting for a candidate who lost.” It hurts, but we’ve all been there.

 “It’s all about LePage.”


Again, sort of. Paul LePage’s squeaker of a win with less than 40 percent of the vote in 2010 did get a lot of people wondering whether there was a better way to run an election. LePage beat independent Eliot Cutler by 10,000 votes, and in third place, Democrat Libby Mitchell had more than 100,000 votes. If just some of her voters had picked Cutler as a second choice, the theory goes, Cutler would have won.

But history doesn’t work like that.

A lot of Cutler’s votes came from Democrats who had abandoned their candidate because they saw him as the best chance to beat LePage. If that hadn’t happened, Mitchell might have finished second instead of Cutler, and in a ranked-choice system he might have been eliminated first.

In that case, it would have been the second choices of Cutler’s voters, not Mitchell’s, that would have been reallocated. Considering the bad blood between Cutler and the Democrats, it seems likely that LePage could have been the beneficiary of ranked-choice voting instead of its victim.

At any rate, there is no election system that could rewrite the history of the last eight years.

What we have instead with ranked-choice voting is a system that would benefit a candidate who has broad appeal across a range of constituencies. Without it, we have a system in which a candidate with strong support from a passionate minority could steal an election.


Which will we choose? It’s as simple as that.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:


Twitter: gregkesich

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.