Kyle Bailey, spokesman for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, is interviewed at the group’s primary night rally shortly after polls closed in Portland on Tuesday. Maine voters didn’t just select their favorite candidates, they ranked the candidates from first to last, using ranked-choice voting for the first time in statewide primaries. Associated Press/Charles Krupa

Mainers supported ranked-choice voting for the second time in two years by passing a people’s veto on Tuesday, making the state the first to overhaul its system for choosing candidates.

With 90 percent of precincts reported by Wednesday afternoon, Yes on 1 held a 54-46 advantage – a greater margin than when ranked-choice voting was first approved by referendum in 2016, albeit with a lower turnout.

“There is so much about our political system in Maine and in America that seems broken and I have to believe that history is going to remember yesterday as a turning point,” Yes on 1 campaign chair Dick Woodbury, a former independent state senator, said Wednesday. “Just about everything that is wrong is nudged in a better direction by this reform.”

Supporters, now buoyed by strong public support, hope to pressure lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment that would mandate ranked choice for all state offices in the general election and also assist other states that might want to give process a try. Without an amendment, ranked choice would continue to be used only in statewide primaries for state and federal office, and for federal office in the general election.

Voters in Maine did get to test the system for the first time Tuesday, in the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial primaries, in the Democratic 2nd Congressional District primary and in a Republican state house primary. Some election clerks reported confusion, but there did not appear to be any major problems putting it into use.

“Ranked-choice voting changes the way we elect politicians to put more power in the hands of voters and restore majority rule,” said Kyle Bailey, the Yes on 1 campaign manager. “This race to the bottom and to the extremes is over. Today we’re writing a new chapter where candidates are encouraged to reach beyond their base … to build coalitions.”

While ranked choice will not be used in the governor’s race this November, it will apply to congressional races, possibly giving hope to challengers to the three incumbents who are seeking reelection: U.S. Sen. Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin.

King’s opponents – Republican Eric Brakey and Democrat Zak Ringelstein – face an uphill battle against the popular independent and former two-term governor, but ranked-choice may tighten that race. If King can’t get 50 percent on the first ballot and Brakey is the second choice for most Ringelstein supporters or vice versa, the results could narrow considerably.

The same dynamic is true in the race in the 1st Congressional District, where Pingree will be challenged by Republican Mark Holbrook and independent Marty Grohman, a former Democrat; and in the 2nd District race, where the two-term Republican Poliquin faces a Democrat – likely Jared Golden, who led a three-way primary on Tuesday – and independent Tiffany Bond.

Ranked-choice supporters hope to apply the system to general election races for governor and the Legislature, but that will take a constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds support among lawmakers, as well as another statewide referendum vote. It doesn’t appear likely that there is two-thirds support in the current Legislature, but Bailey said public support has been consistent and lawmakers should heed that.

Although there was no organized opposition to Question 1, the Maine Republican Party and its leader, Gov. Paul LePage, have been vocal for weeks about rejecting ranked-choice voting. Republicans challenged the law in court after it passed in November 2016 and then, with their majority in the Legislature, passed a law last fall that halted the implementation.

Ranked-choice supporters, undeterred, immediately launched a people’s veto, gathering 80,000 signatures in 88 days in the dead of winter.

“Three and a half years ago we came together to fix a broken political system and we did this without knowing that we would be successful today. But one of the things we were determined about was that this was the right thing to do,” said Cara McCormick, campaign treasurer for Yes on 1.

Despite widespread opposition among Republicans, ranked-choice voting did not figure in any of their races. Shawn Moody won a four-way race outright with 56 percent of the vote to become the Republican nominee for governor.

Many of the same people who led the ranked-choice voting campaign had worked for independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, who finished second to LePage in the 2010 race and then finished a distant third in 2014 behind LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud. They said 2014 marked the ninth time in the last 11 gubernatorial elections that a candidate has won without earning 50 percent of the vote, and that served as a strong talking point.

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

With Tuesday’s result, other states could look at adopting ranked-choice voting, too.

Jeanne Massey, representing FairVote Minnesota, a group that has helped to implement ranked-choice voting in Minneapolis and St. Paul, said Maine’s vote was historic.

“I think it represents a seismic change in our democracy,” she said. “Minnesota and 48 other states are cheering you on and thanking Maine for leading the way.”

Represent.Us, the country’s largest nonpartisan anti-corruption organization, also hailed Maine’s vote.

“A wonky reform called Ranked Choice Voting is poised to sweep the nation, and fix our badly broken democracy,” said Josh Silver, the group’s director. “Political extremism, polarization, gridlock and lack of good candidate choices is the result of defunct election and campaign finance laws. The Maine system is one of the most powerful reforms to fix those problems, and get our nation back on track.”

Bailey said he expects opponents to keep challenging them, but said he doesn’t see Maine going back.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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