Citizens, there is work to be done. The Maine Legislature is coming in for a special session on Oct. 23. Gov. Paul LePage called the session and has a punch list that includes bringing Maine’s “food sovereignty” law into federal compliance and fixing what the administration considers to be a funding error within the Office of Geographic Information Systems.
The chief executive believes these issues are important enough to drag our 186 legislators away from their jobs and families at a cost of something like $40,000 a day, but there are other matters the Legislature is likely to address while they are at it. One is the implementation of Maine’s new marijuana law, and the other is to address the constitutional problem with the as-yet-untested ranked-choice voting (RCV) law.
RCV is of particular interest — or should be. The next election may be 13 months away, but election season has begun. Primary elections come in June, and with a term-limited governor, candidates are popping up all over the place. Eight Democrats have registered or announced, while three Republicans entered the race even before Sen. Susan Collins announced her intentions. There also are two Green Independents, a Libertarian and one unenrolled candidate.
One Democrat and one Republican have already withdrawn. More could leave; more could register. It’s the sign of a healthy democracy to have a lot of candidates, right? Right. But large fields of candidates create some downside, too, with which Maine is all too familiar.
It is rare that a candidate gets a majority of the votes when the electoral pool is large. Angus King pulled it off in 1998, winning over 58 percent of the vote in a five-way race. But in King’s first gubernatorial race in 1994, he received the lowest winning percentage of votes ever in Maine (35 percent), though it was an unusually strong candidate pool that included both Joe Brennan and Susan Collins. In subsequent gubernatorial elections, neither John Baldacci nor LePage ever passed the 50 percent mark.
Ranked-choice voting could be the remedy. Voters may indicate more than one preferred candidate in priority order. If no candidate receives over 50 percent of the vote on the first ballot, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped from the ballot and the second, third and fourth choices from those ballots are distributed as the voter indicated. The process is repeated until there is a majority winner.
Here’s the rub. A referendum vote in November 2016 put RCV into law for Maine by a large majority. Prior to the vote, there had been some debate about the article’s constitutionality, since the state constitution specifies that winners may be elected by a plurality vote. When the referendum passed, the question was put to the Maine Supreme Court, whose members issued a unanimous advisory opinion that the new law failed the constitutional test.
The Legislature had two options. It could repeal the new law despite clear voter support, or it could amend the constitution to require a majority vote. Bills to do both of those were introduced last winter, but nothing was passed. The state could implement RCV for federal elections and for state primaries.
That’s where the special session takes on major importance. If the Legislature does not act, the law as it stands must be implemented, and it is quite likely that there would be challenges to election results based on the constitutional question. Messy. The Legislature should have taken action on this last winter but did not. Now’s the time, fellas.
This does not mean that we won’t end up with four- and five-way races in November. What it does mean is that the math of the primaries changes dramatically. Right now, Republicans have just under 27 percent of registered voters; Democrats have 32 percent. Calculate likely voter turnout in the primaries (50 percent would be generous), and we have general election candidates being selected by a small fraction of the electorate. Those of us unenrolled in a political party (over 36 percent in July of 2017) must choose between those thinly supported nominees.
The congressional race in the 2nd District is not dissimilar. There are seven Democrats, a Libertarian and an independent already in. Among Democrats, RCV would give us a nominee much more broadly supported than might result from a seven-way race with a plurality winner.
Some have said that implementing the law for just those races not constitutionally challenged would be confusing to voters. Oh, ye of little faith. We’ll figure it out. The important work is to implement what we can and fix the rest in accordance with the wishes of Maine voters.
Now is the time to let your legislators know that we supported RCV at the polls, and we expect them to implement it. Repeal is not an option, it is simply an excuse to avoid a new voting system that the parties would rather not have. As the number of unenrolled (independent) voters grows, we need to let the parties know that our voice is important. Call. Text. Email. The time for RCV is now.