Maine made history Thursday when it became the first state to elect a representative to Congress using a ranked-choice voting instant runoff. National election experts say the fact that the process went off without any technical hitches will give proponents of this type of electoral reform substantial traction in efforts to introduce the system in other states.

“Other state reform efforts have watched the Maine innovation with great hope and interest, and now they’re seeing it actually implemented,” says Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “I think we will look back on Maine’s adoption of this initiative as a real watershed in the history of present-day electoral reform in the United States.”

Democrat Jared Golden was declared the winner of Maine’s 2nd District congressional seat in a ranked-choice instant runoff Thursday, nine days after the election. Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin had held a 2,632-vote lead over Golden in the four-way contest after voters’ first choices were counted, but because he had only 46 percent of the first-round vote, the contest went to the ranked-choice runoff.

Ballots were shipped last week to the Secretary of State’s Office in Augusta, where the second choices of those who voted for independent candidates Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar were added to the tallies of Golden and Poliquin. These voters broke by more than 2-to-1 for Golden, who was declared the winner with 50.5 percent of the final vote.

While the ballots were being scanned, however, Poliquin filed a federal lawsuit to try to prevent the ranked-choice count from taking place, on the grounds that the system violates the U.S. Constitution, an argument legal experts are skeptical of. U.S. District Judge Lance Walker declined to block the count, though he may yet allow the case to be heard.



But election reform experts say the legal drama will likely be overshadowed by the technical success of the process. Few ballots were spoiled by voter errors – less than 0.2 percent of them – and more than two-thirds of voters who chose one of the independents in the first round recorded a second-round choice for Golden or Poliquin.

Lee Drutman, an election reform researcher at the think thank New America in Washington, D.C., says other jurisdictions will take notice that the system worked as intended. “When you try something new, there’s always fear mongering that somehow things will go awry,” he says. “But it’s clear that Maine voters used it and seem to be pretty happy with it.”

Ranked-choice aims to eliminate voter angst over supporting a potential “spoiler” candidate and ensure the winner ultimately has majority support. The system was used in all of Maine’s primary elections this year, but only for the U.S. Senate and House races in this month’s general election because of language in the Maine Constitution that appears to exclude the system from use in gubernatorial and legislative races. It only comes into play when no candidate achieves a majority of the initial vote, which was the situation in the Democratic gubernatorial primary back in June and the 2nd District U.S. House contest.

Voters receive a ballot on which they can rank candidates for an office by order of preference. If a candidate wins a majority of the first-choice votes, the contest is over and that person will be declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and each of his or her voters’ second choices are added to the tallies of each of the remaining candidates. If there still isn’t a majority, the candidate in last is again removed, and his or her supporters’ next-highest ranked choices are added to the vote tallies of the survivors. The process continues until someone has a majority or all ballots are exhausted.

Maine is the first state to implement the system for statewide primaries and its congressional races, the result of a successful ballot initiative in 2016 and a victorious “people’s veto” this June of a Republican-driven law that would have effectively blocked the new system. The system was already in use to elect Portland’s mayors and, outside Maine, those of San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, Santa Fe and other cities; the leaders of Canada’s three major political parties; the Irish president; and the members of Australia’s House of Representatives.



It’s no surprise that Maine would be the first to take the system statewide, says Jack Santucci, who studies ranked-choice voting systems and teaches political science at Drexel University. He found that interest in election reform picks up at times and in places when races are regularly won without a majority, something that’s become more common than not in Maine, where until Janet Mills’ victory this month, nobody had won a majority in a gubernatorial race in more than two decades.

“Maine was special in that you have that long string of non-majority winners for governor, so it was easy to go to people and say ‘look what’s happening here’ and ‘here’s a solution for that,’ ” Santucci says. “Offhand I can’t think of another jurisdiction where that’s as much the case.”

Santucci agrees that Maine’s apparently successful election will encourage other states to take a look, but notes that on a national level, third-party voting in U.S. House races is actually down to 4 percent from its peak of 6 percent of votes cast in the early 1990s. Less third-party voting generally means fewer contests are won via vote splitting, he notes, reducing interest in alternate systems like ranked-choice voting.

But Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst at the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight, says there’s plenty of interest in electoral reform, so much so that he doesn’t think Maine’s use of the system will have much net effect.

“I think ranked-choice reformers are already excited to expand the system to other cities and states, and obviously getting it statewide in Maine for federal elections was a big win for them,” Rakich said before the final results were announced Thursday. “You could actually make the case that this could polarize things even more if the election goes to Golden and will make Republicans instinctively against ranked-choice voting.”


Ironically, the electoral reform effort intended to reduce political polarization has become a heated partisan flash point in Maine. Legislative Republicans have strongly opposed the voter-approved reform, even passing a law that would have effectively killed it, only to have that law overturned in June via a “people’s veto.” Santucci’s research on the 2016 vote found that 82 percent of Hillary Clinton voters in Maine also supported the ranked-choice voting ballot measure that day, while 83 percent of Donald Trump voters opposed it.

This partisan divide on the issue probably presents the greatest challenge to its spreading elsewhere, Diamond says. “It’s really unfortunate, because there is no reason for this to be a partisan issue,” he says. “Why is it unimaginable that there could be a third party tea party-type candidate who draws voters away in the first round, and those votes are transferred back to maybe a more moderate Republican who prevails in the second round?”

Regardless, Michael Morley, an elections law expert at Florida State University School of Law, thinks Maine’s pioneering use of the system will increase momentum elsewhere. “Anytime a state adopts a reform whether in regards to electoral law or other areas it can act as a model or example for other states, and provides an experiment where other states can see the results,” he says. “That’s going to help other jurisdictions determine if they want to follow that lead.”

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