Turnout appeared to be strong as Mainers statewide cast ballots for the first time using ranked-choice voting in a seven-way primary for governor among Democrats and a four-way race among Republicans. In addition, voters in the U.S. House 2nd District will choose among three Democratic candidates seeking to challenge incumbent Rep. Bruce Poliquin, and Republican voters will use ranked-choice voting to pick a candidate in Maine House District 75.

The fate of ranked-choice voting itself is also on the ballot. The Maine Legislature adopted a bill to delay implementation of the voting system until 2021 and repeal it altogether if the state Constitution isn’t changed by then to allow its use in general election races for governor and the Maine Legislature. Supporters of ranked-choice voting have put a “people’s veto” on the ballot Tuesday to repeal that law and retain ranked-choice voting, which was adopted by referendum in 2016. Under ranked-choice voting, voters select their first choice for a position and then put the rest of the candidates in order of their preference. After the votes are counted, if no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote, the last-place candidate is eliminated and his or her votes are allocated based on voters’ second choices. The process continues until one candidate gets a majority of the vote.

Ranked-choice voting seemed to be a reason many voters headed to the polls early Tuesday.

Turnout was strong at a polling station in Portland’s Deering High School, but some people were having trouble filling out their ranked-choice ballots correctly, said Barbara Harvey, a Republican election warden.

By 10:30 a.m., there were already seven spoiled ballots and two disqualified ballots – far more than normal, Harvey said. Voters who make a mistake on their ballot can come back and get a new one, she said.

“It doesn’t sound like much, but you usually don’t have more than five” spoiled ballots, Harvey said. Confusion over the system persists even though Portland voters have used ranked-choice in two elections for mayor, she said.

“Even the educated public is having a hard time,” Harvey added.

Linda and Charles Crumrine said they didn’t have any trouble with ranked- choice voting but understood why it was confusing to some people.

Charles Crumrine said he wasn’t sure ranked choice was a good system.

“I don’t fully understand it, it seems like a lot of smoke and mirrors,” he said. “You could still end up with a candidate that didn’t have the most popular votes winning.”

Over in Cape Elizabeth, Liz and Tom Murley said they were familiar with the process because they lived for years in England, which also uses ranked-choice voting in some elections.

“We think it’s great,” Liz Murley said, adding that the couple also voted in the referendum to support its continued use.

Tom Murley said it requires a little strategizing before casting a ballot. For instance, he said, he voted for his preferred candidate in the Democratic primary for governor, but then made sure to rank a less-favored politician well down the list when he ranked his choices.

Eric Bridger said he brought a cheat sheet to help him remember how to rank the candidates, pulling a blue slip of paper from his pocket with the candidates ranked from one to seven.

He, too, supported the referendum to override the Legislature’s attempt to limit, and perhaps derail, ranked-choice voting.

“I’m a big supporter,” Bridger said of the voting system. “It was pretty simple.” And Joe Fournier, an independent, voted to support ranked-choice voting and the town’s school budget.

Fournier said it was frustrating to have to reaffirm support for ranked-choice voting after voting for it in the referendum two years ago.

Biddeford City Clerk Carmen Morris said that while primary turnout is usually light, more people seemed to be showing up this year.

“I think we’ll have a pretty decent turnout,” she said.

Clerks had to instruct some people on how to fill out a ranked-choice ballot and a few voters needed a new ballot after making a mistake the first time, Morris added.

But by and large, she said, most people didn’t have trouble with the new system.

“The instructions are pretty clear,” Morris said.

Harpswell voter Brian O’Sullivan concurred. He had done a little research ahead of time, but said the printed instructions in the voting booths were easy to follow.

“It was easier than expected,” he said.

Voters at that location had turned out in such a steady stream that election wardens ran out of “I voted today” stickers by 9:30 a.m.

O’Sullivan said that wasn’t a surprise, given the hyperpartisan tone of politics today.

“I expect it will be a really good turnout,” he said.

In Biddeford, as Dori Rogers left the polling station she passed Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Mark Eves and Donna Dion, who were outside greeting voters.

Rogers said she supported ranked-choice voting, but the wording of the ballot question was confusing.

“If I hadn’t seen a commercial about it I wouldn’t have known how to vote,” she said.

Using ranked choices for the primary was no problem, she added.

“I liked that choice,” she said. Ranked-choice voting is used in about a dozen cities in the U.S., including Portland. The only other use of it in a statewide election was for a judicial post in North Carolina in 2010, which called for ranked-choice voting in a narrow set of circumstances. North Carolina repealed its ranked-choice voting system in 2013.

In Buxton, there were long lines all day because of heavy voter turnout and a new system of collecting ballots, said Town Clerk John Myers.

In the past, all ballots could go in any machine, but this year state ballots are collected separately. With four local ballots, lines backed up as voters sorted their ballots into two machines. One of the machines was acting up, adding to the slowdown.

Voter Bennett Allen said he voted only for his top choice candidate because he opposed ranked-choice voting.

“I think the old style was fine and I’d like to keep it that way,” he said. “I didn’t see a need to change it.”

RESULTS LIKELY DELAYED

The Maine Republican Party opposes ranked-choice voting and filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop its use in its primary. But a federal judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction to bar its use.

The method will not be used in this fall’s election for governor or state legislative seats because of conflicts with the state Constitution. But if voters pass the people’s veto, it will be used in the races for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.

Because of the logistics of tabulating votes under ranked-choice voting, results aren’t likely to be known for a week.

Towns and cities have three days to send their paper ballots and results from vote tabulating machines to Augusta, where the secretary of state’s staff will unlock and unseal ballot boxes, upload data from the tabulating machines and run a high-speed counting program designed for ranked-choice voting. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said that his office will release unofficial results from the first round of counting, along with the results from subsequent rounds, but he expects final results will not be available until the week of June 18.

Observers predicted a strong turnout for the primary because of the wide-open races for governor in both parties and the race to challenge Poliquin.

Weather wasn’t a factor in turnout Tuesday, with mostly sunny skies statewide and temperatures rising to the mid- and upper-70s.

Staff writers Gillian Graham, Joe Lawlor and Carol Coultas contributed to this report.

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