Without endorsing a candidate, Gov. Mills made a move recently that could well have an enormous impact on the 2020 presidential race: She allowed a bill that expanded ranked-choice voting to cover the presidential race to become law without her signature.

That ensured that it would be in place for the general election but not for Maine’s recently enacted March primary. Her perfectly reasonable justification for the delay was that the Legislature hadn’t properly funded the bill, and needed more time to consider logistical hurdles. Those are entirely valid points, but they’re ones that Democratic legislators could have considered before they rammed the bill through – or that might have made more sense as part of a veto message.

That’s why, as soon as Mills announced her decision, many suspected her decision was mainly driven by politics. There’s every reason to think that presidential candidates and the Democratic National Committee might not be exactly thrilled with the prospect of a ranked-choice voting primary. Ranked-choice voting has been mainly pushed by the liberal grassroots in Maine, and less so by the party establishment. Democrats in Augusta even worked with Republicans to put ranked-choice voting on ice before that was undone by a people’s veto campaign. Advocates for ranked-choice voting have every reason to suspect Maine Democrats of skullduggery when it comes to any legislation involving ranked-choice voting.

While the Democratic National Committee is, of course, doing everything it can to defeat Donald Trump in 2020, there’s little reason for them to avoid implementing ranked-choice voting in the primary. A party presidential primary is governed by national party rules, not just state law, and Democrats already require proportional allocation of delegates: Any candidate who receives 15 percent or more of the votes gets delegates. Under those rules, ranked-choice voting would kick in at a much lower threshold – so while it might allow a struggling candidate to snag an extra delegate or two, it probably wouldn’t have much impact on the overall contest. Indeed, by the time Super Tuesday rolls around, there may not be six legitimate candidates left in the race, and they’ll likely focus their attention on the larger states that are voting that day, like California. Maine will probably end up being ignored.

The general election is a completely different story. If the presidential contest is tight again, even a small state like Maine could have an enormous impact – especially since we split our electoral votes by congressional district. In 2016, no candidate won a majority of the vote – and Trump did better than any Republican since George H.W. Bush won the state in 1988. He managed to carry the state’s 2nd Congressional District, and even though that didn’t end up making a difference in 2016, it came close – and easily could again in 2020.

Ranked-choice voting may well only encourage Maine’s propensity for ticket-splitting and willingness to vote for candidates outside the major parties. It’s quite easy to see a Libertarian, Green or independent candidate doing extraordinarily well in Maine. They have before (relative to other states), and with ranked-choice voting in place, their supporters couldn’t be accused of wasting their votes. In 2016, if ranked-choice voting had been in place, it may well have favored Trump: The third-place finisher in Maine, Libertarian Gary Johnson, is a former Republican governor.

2020 is different, however, since both parties and their candidates know in advance that ranked-choice voting will be used. They’ll be able to plan strategically for it well ahead of time – something that will become more and more common as both sides familiarize themselves with ranked-choice voting. We saw this at play in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District last year, when most supporters of the liberal independent candidates ranked the Republican incumbent last. While Democrats might not have actively helped those independents to campaign or get on the ballot, they certainly had to be pleased with the result.

That race could well have been a dress rehearsal for a much bigger stage: the 2020 presidential election. If there were independent candidates on the ballot in Maine – whether liberals, moderates or whatever – they could all unite to trumpet an anti-Trump message. They may be able to bring voters out of the woodwork in a small, competitive state like Maine – voters who aren’t thrilled by the Democrat but who despise Trump. Without ranked-choice voting, they’d split the anti-Trump vote, but with it they could consolidate it – which may well be exactly what the Democrats are planning.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel


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