Bill Dunn signed onto the ranked-choice voting campaign within days of the initiative’s launch roughly 3½ years ago.

He collected 350 signatures to send the issue to Maine voters in November 2016 and then another 300 signatures to send it back to them on Tuesday after lawmakers tried to delay Maine’s first-in-the-nation experiment with statewide ranked-choice elections.

So on Friday, Dunn and a team of volunteers were feverishly working the phones and knocking on doors to ensure potential voters – and particularly unenrolled voters – knew Tuesday’s election was about more than Democrats and Republicans choosing gubernatorial nominees.

“It’s kind of like, ‘Why wouldn’t you want this?’ ” Dunn, a semiretired Yarmouth resident, said when asked why he was so passionate about the ranked-choice issue. “Why wouldn’t you want to elect representatives supported by at least one-half of the people?”

Tuesday’s elections in Maine will help determine both the next occupant of the governor’s mansion but also how future gubernatorial, congressional and legislative races are decided.

Democrats will choose from among seven candidates for governor: Attorney and veteran Adam Cote of Sanford, former Biddeford Mayor Donna Dion, Portland Senator and former Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion, former House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick, Attorney General Janet Mills or Farmington, former Portland Rep. Diane Russell and advocate-lobbyist Betsy Sweet of Hallowell.

Republicans will have their choice of four Blaine House hopefuls: House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette of Newport, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls, former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew of China, and businessman Shawn Moody of Gorham.

As the proliferation of lawn signs and campaign ads suggests, the two gubernatorial races as well as a Democratic primary for the 2nd District congressional seat have grown increasingly heated – and negative – in recent weeks.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said between 15 and 30 percent of eligible voters typically participate in Maine’s primary elections – well below the nearly 70 percent who turn out during presidential elections. But this year, Dunlap said he wouldn’t be surprised to see 25 percent turn out, or more.

“I suspect that we are on the high end of that scale because we have the contested races for governor and the campaigns are out there rallying their supporters,” Dunlap said on Friday.

In recent weeks, Dunlap’s office has been disseminating information about the ranked-choice voting process and answering questions from voters. It is also distributing informational posters for polling places and has done some preliminary testing of the computer system that will be used to tabulate ranked-choice voting results in the event that no candidate receives a majority of the vote after the first round of counting.

“I think we are pretty well prepared for it,” Dunlap said.

SHIFTING DYNAMICS

The big unknown is how voters’ use of ranked-choice voting could affect the outcomes of the Republican and Democratic primaries for governor.

Under the ranked-choice system, voters select candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first count, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Voters who preferred the eliminated candidate would then have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidates, and the ballots would be retabulated. The process continues until one candidate has a majority and is declared the winner.

Ranked-choice voting has already shifted the dynamics in the Democratic race, and created a buzz in the process.

Last week, two of the progressive Democratic competitors – Eves and Sweet – launched a joint video and canvassing effort in hopes of using the ranked-choice system to rise above the perceived front-runners, Janet Mills and Adam Cote.

“So on June 12th you can vote for me first and Betsy second, or,” Eves said.

“Or me first and him second,” Sweet chimed in, “and you can be assured that we will have a strong progressive leader and we will all move Maine forward together.”

At the same time, Cote and Mills or their supporters have been accusing each other of “going negative” in the final days of the campaign. Those tensions boiled over on Friday, when a pro-Mills political action committee paid $192,000 for negative ads against Cote, financed with $300,000 from the national organization EMILY’s List.

Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said he believes there was a “substantial risk” that the attack ads on Cote could backfire against Mills even though her campaign was not responsible for them.

“I think there are a lot of Democrats that don’t like that” type of campaigning, Melcher said.

Meanwhile, Melcher said the Eves-Sweet partnership – and Eves’ strong denouncement of an outside group funding ads against Cote – could play well with voters and lead to either gaining more votes in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots.

“And I think the Eves-Sweet strategy of going very, very positive could be a good strategy,” Melcher said.

On the Republican side, all four of the candidates are opposed to ranked-choice voting. Some are even urging their supporters to vote for only one candidate.

UNENROLLED VOTERS KEY

Ironically, the fate of ranked-choice voting in Maine may hinge on the population of voters who can’t even participate in the high-profile gubernatorial primaries. As a result, much of this weekend’s “get-out-the-vote” effort in support of Question 1 on the ballot is likely to focus on making sure independent or unenrolled voters show up on Tuesday.

Unenrolled or independent voters account for the largest block in Maine at 36.5 percent of registered voters. Democrats account for 31.9 percent of registrations followed by Republicans at 26.8 percent, Green-Independents, 4.2 percent, and Libertarians, 0.5 percent.

Because Maine is a “closed primary” state, independents as well as Greens and Independents cannot cast ballots in the Democratic or Republican primaries unless they enroll in either party on Election Day. But they can cast votes on the ranked-choice referendum that appears as Question 1 on the ballot.

While there is no organized opposition campaign against Question 1, Republican leaders are actively campaigning against ranked-choice voting.

Leaders of ranked-choice voting campaign declined to discuss specific strategy, but it is clear that getting out the independent vote could be crucial to outcome.

“For the last 3½ years, we have been running this campaign and, in the process, we have had hundreds of thousands of conversations and track those people who support it,” said Kyle Bailey with the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting. “We are talking to Democrats, Republicans, independents as well as Greens and Libertarians … and we are finding they are still engaged and are excited to vote.”

REPUBLICAN FACTOR

While Bailey said “Republican party insiders” have been working to sow confusion about ranked-choice voting, he believes many rank-and-file Republican voters will support the initiative.

Melcher at UMF isn’t so sure about what, however. The people who are most passionate about ranked-choice voting tend to be independent or unenrolled voters, and Melcher believes many of those die-hard voters will show up on Tuesday.

“If they lose, I think it is because the people who want ranked-choice voting never found a way to convince Republicans,” Melcher said.

Others have complained that the wording of the question itself is confusing.

Question 1 reads: “Do you want to reject the parts of a new law that would delay the use of ranked-choice voting in the election of candidates for any state or federal office until 2022, and then retain the method only if the constitution is amended by December 1, 2021, to allow ranked-choice voting for candidates in state elections?”

In essence, a “yes” vote means Mainers will continue to use ranked-choice voting in primary and congressional elections. A “no” vote, meanwhile, would suspend ranked-choice voting until 2022 and then eliminate it altogether unless the Legislature takes action to restore it.

Dunlap said the question had to be written in such a way to accurately reflect that this is a “people’s veto” of the law delaying and potentially repealing ranked-choice voting.

“The question has been out there since the first week of November,” Dunlap said. “It has been part of the public discourse and it reflects accurately what the Legislature did. … I think the question is fine.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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