YORK — Once again, the voters of Maine have an opportunity to make history.

Two years ago, Jared Golden was elected to represent Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives by defeating incumbent Bruce Poliquin. Golden’s election victory was secured after the votes were redistributed in the nation’s first ranked-choice voting election for Congress.

The 2020 Maine Senate race has three women on the ballot.

Susan Collins, the incumbent and Republican Party nominee, is running for a fifth six-year term. She is running against Sara Gideon, the Democratic Party nominee, and Lisa Savage, a Green Independent.

Three women, but three very different candidates.

Collins, born and raised in Maine, has a long history as a politician and is a stalwart of the Republican Party. But her claim of being a moderate has come under attack, most recently for supporting much of Donald Trump’s agenda. The Republican Party and allied political action committees have already poured tens of millions of dollars into Collins’ campaign in an effort to keep that Senate seat red.

Gideon moved to Maine 16 years ago and has served as a state representative for eight years, the last four as speaker of the Maine House. Very early in the primary cycle, her candidacy for the Democratic nomination received a huge boost from endorsements and large amounts of money from establishment organizations, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. These early endorsements and the money that followed came at the expense of two progressive candidates for the nomination, Betsy Sweet and Bre Kidman.

Savage is less well known and has not participated in politics at the state level. She graduated from Bowdoin College and is a public school teacher in rural Maine. She stands out from the other two candidates because of her support of progressive ideals including single-payer health care, the Green New Deal and a refusal to take money from corporate PACs or lobbyists. Instead, she relies on small-dollar donations.

Prior to the Trump presidency, there was typically little daylight between establishment candidates, whether they represented the Republican or the Democratic party. Candidates from both parties are susceptible to corporate influence through lobbyists and the millions of dollars they receive from super PACs. It could be argued that those contributions are the major reason there has been little movement toward progressive ideals.

With Donald Trump in place as the Republican Party’s standard bearer, a new difference between Republicans and Democrats has emerged.

In any other state, a candidacy by an independent like Savage would all but ensure a victory by an incumbent like Collins, as Savage would siphon off votes from Gideon.

But this is Maine. And Maine is one of two states that has an independent senator. And it is the only state that has ranked-choice voting for federal elections.

With ranked-choice voting, sometimes known as “instant runoff voting,” voters may rank their choices and by so doing are able to vote their conscience without concern that their first ranked vote might benefit a candidate who they do not support.

The winning candidate in a ranked-choice voting election needs the support of a majority of voters – more than 50 percent – not simply a plurality of voters. So if a voter’s favored candidate is not in the top two, and no candidate has a majority of the votes, a voter’s vote shifts to their second choice.

In 2018, Jared Golden initially received fewer first-place votes than Bruce Poliquin, but because neither candidate had over 50 percent support, the votes of the voters who ranked the two other candidates, Tiffany Bond and William Hoar first, went to those voters’ second choices. Most of those who voted for Bond and Hoar had put Golden down as their second choice, giving him the support of a majority of voters after the recalculation. And Golden became a U.S. representative.

This November, ranked-choice voting may once again play a defining role in an election with national implications.

At the very least, ranked-choice voting will give Mainers who care about health care for all Americans, or who want an assertive approach to climate change, or who truly want money out of politics, an opportunity to vote their conscience without fear of wasting their vote.

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