Ranked choice voting (RCV) in Maine has been a bit like Charlie Brown and the football. No matter how many times the public attempts a kickoff, Lucy snatches the ball up. How many times do we have to support it before politicians stop trying to take it away?
The first attempt to introduce RCV in the Maine Legislature was in 2001. After several failed attempts to create a system where one candidate ended up with a majority of votes, rather than a plurality, in 2015 the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting was formed and the first petition drive got underway. RCV was approved by the voters in a referendum vote in 2016. It applied to elections for governor, state Legislature and Congress.
In 2017, a Republican-led Maine Senate put a question of the constitutionality of RCV to the Maine Supreme Court and the Court ruled it unconstitutional for general elections. The Legislature responded by passing a law that brought RCV into compliance with the Constitution by specifying that it only applied to primary elections for Congress, governor and state legislators.
Next came a People’s Veto petition to implement the constitutional parts of the law, a court order to implement the law for the June 2018 primary election and a lawsuit that resulted in allowing the previous court order to stand, allowing for the implementation of RCV in June 2018.
The Maine Republican Party challenged the ruling unsuccessfully. Congressional incumbent Bruce Poliquin challenged RCV in November 2018 when it resulted in the election of Jared Golden to the 2nd Congressional District seat Poliquin had held. Poliquin eventually dropped the suit.
In 2020, a law was passed to expand RCV to presidential elections, both primary and general. A People’s Veto to that was submitted but was found by the secretary of state to have too few valid signatures. Republicans appealed the question of invalid signatures and lost.
It gets worse. Lawsuits, stays of orders, more lawsuits, injunctions. If you want to carry on with the details, check out the League of Women Voters’ website, “Ranked Choice Voting Timeline.” It is your best hope at understanding the tortuous course of RCV. Bottom line: In November 2018, a congressional representative was elected using RCV for the first time in the country.
The footnote to that success was that a month later a U.S. District Court judge rejected a request for a permanent injunction against RCV, finding for the defendant, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.
But wait, there’s more. Within weeks of being the first state in the nation to use RCV in a presidential election, the Maine Republican Party is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court? It’s busy just now, so the Maine Supreme Court must decide whether to allow the use of RCV while the federal case goes forward or to issue a stay, preventing RCV in a presidential election until the U.S. Supreme Court rules.
Maine voters have affirmed their support for ranked choice voting repeatedly. It allows voters to rank their preferences among the candidates, and if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, voters’ second choices are tallied until someone hits a majority.
This eliminates the “spoiler” effect when a candidate siphons off a small percentage of votes that shifts the outcome from one major candidate to another. This could be a factor in play in this year’s U.S. Senate election in which Lisa Savage is up against two much better known (and much better funded) candidates. Savage made a good showing in a recent debate, confident, knowledgeable and steering clear of the wearying partisan sniping going on around her. Now voters may support her if they wish without fear of throwing the election to their least preferred candidate.
RCV works as an “instant run-off” without the labor and expense of calling the electorate back to the polls to vote again when a majority is required. Separate run-off elections have much lower turnout than the regular election, too. When RCV was first floated in Maine, there was confusion about just what it meant and how it worked. After a major education effort and having actually used it, voters get it.
The curious question is why, when the voters have supported RCV over and over again, Republicans continue to do their best to obstruct its implementation. Election reform is difficult. Election law is controlled by the major parties, both of which are reluctant to change a system they think works in their favor.
The alternative is the people’s referendum, the terms of which are also controlled by the parties, making it an arduous process fraught with challenge. When a referendum is deemed inimical to the parties’ interests, they have plenty of tools to thwart the will of the people. We have a good one to fight back. Vote.