So you think you finally have ranked-choice voting figured out?

Wait until March.

Assuming Gov. Janet Mills signs it into law – she has until Thursday to decide – a newly passed bill requiring that Maine use ranked-choice voting in its March 3 “Super Tuesday” presidential primary adds a whole new wrinkle to what many already viewed as a complex process.

“It’s a bit of a head scratcher,” Secretary of State Matt Dunlap agreed in an interview Friday.

The new law, passed by the House in June and by the Senate in a surprise vote during the Legislature’s special session Monday, introduces the ranked-choice process to an election that, in truth, really isn’t an election.

More on that in a minute. First, let’s review this newspaper’s boilerplate explanation of how ranked-choice has worked in Maine since it was first used statewide in June 2018:

The process allows voters to rank contenders in races with three or more candidates in order of preference on the ballot. If any candidate receives 50 percent or more of the vote on the first tally, he or she is declared the winner and the election is over. If no one receives a majority, however, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are reallocated to the candidates that their supporters ranked second. 

That process continues – with candidates eliminated from the bottom up and their supporters’ votes redistributed – until one candidate secures a majority of the remaining vote pool.

Note that until now, regardless of how many rounds it takes, the election ends the moment a candidate crosses the 50 percent line. Beyond bragging rights, how all the also-rans finished is irrelevant.

Not so in the presidential primary, especially in a Democratic contest that currently features 20 candidates.

For starters, the presidential primaries don’t actually choose the nominee. That won’t happen until the parties hold their national conventions next summer.

What the primaries will do is decide how many delegates to the conventions each candidate gets. And in the case of the Democrats, at least, it won’t be winner-take-all.

Under Democratic National Committee rules, a state’s delegates must be distributed proportionately among any candidates who receive 15 percent or more of the vote. Thus, even without ranked-choice voting per se, delegate apportionment still would be based on a candidate’s “rank” in the first round of tabulation.

Put more simply, Maine is about to overlay ranked-choice voting onto an election already designed to rank the finishers.

But wait, there’s more. According to Alex Stack, spokesman for the Maine Democratic Party, the rules will likely require that lower-end candidates be eliminated only after there’s no mathematical chance for them to amass 15 percent of the vote.

That, in effect, turns the whole process upside-down: Rather than end when a “winner” passes 50 percent of the total vote, the count could continue until anyone who might amass 15 percent either does so or is eliminated.

Come to think of it, it’s even possible that a 50 percent majority – the Holy Grail of ranked-choice voting – won’t be achieved by anyone because multiple candidates with 15 percent or more will stay in the game until the end.

Are we having fun yet?

“From what I understand, all that matters is what the DNC rules are,” said Stack of the Maine Democrats. “We’re obviously going to have to do a lot of public education about it.”

Back at the Secretary of State’s office, Dunlap likened the situation – as  only he can – to the legend of the Gordian knot. That’s the tale of how Alexander the Great, faced with a knot no one could untie in the Persian province of Phrygia, drew his sword and cut the knot in half and, fulfilling a centuries-old prophecy, went on to conquer much of Asia.

“In the spirit of cutting the Gordian knot, I don’t think it’s within my purview as a state election official to get up to my neck in the weeds of the party delegate allocation process,” Dunlap said.

Instead, he’ll run the primary as best he can – assuming the Legislature comes up with the estimated $100,000 in state funds needed to pay for it. That’s another yet-to-be resolved problem.

There’s always a chance, of course, that the governor could veto the ranked-choice legislation – introduced without warning last week by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

But don’t bet on it. While Mills is reportedly less than thrilled with Jackson’s spontaneity, putting the brakes on now would forever cast her as a stick in the spokes of progressive democracy.

More likely, Mills will sign the bill, or at least let it become law without her signature, leaving Dunlap to navigate this primary like no other.

“The ones who are really trying to wriggle out from under it say, ‘Well, Matt Dunlap is a smart guy. He’ll figure it out,’” Dunlap said. “And I keep telling people, ‘It’s one thing to pull a rabbit out of a top hat. But you guys are now asking me to pull a herd of goats out of a thimble.’”

This much is certain: Come March 3 or shortly thereafter, as the world waits to see who won Maine’s primary and how in the name of Paul Bunyan we arrived at that conclusion, one or more bottom-tier candidates are going to be howling about how the system was rigged and how, in a “normal” primary, they would have fared much better.

“Then the question is who gets sued,” Dunlap said.

My guess? It will be the secretary of state.

“I’m used to it,” Dunlap replied. “I run around with pockets full of lawsuits.”


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