PORTLAND, Maine — A proposal to revamp Maine’s elections is as easy as ranking candidates 1, 2, 3.
Ranked-choice voting advocates say a referendum question would pave the way for people in Maine to rank their ballot choices from first to last, ensuring that a candidate wins majority support while eliminating the impact of so-called spoilers and rejecting party extremists who lack centrist appeal.
Critics say it’s not that simple: There are constitutional questions as well as logistical concerns about instituting such a dramatic elections overhaul.
If it’s approved on Nov. 8, then Maine voters would be the first in the U.S. to endorse on a statewide basis a system that’s in use in municipal elections in several cities across the country.
“People are not OK with the status quo. It’s not working for them. They’re ready for change,” said Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting.
Ranked-choice voting works like this: A candidate who gets a majority of first-place votes is the winner. If no one gets a majority, however, then the last-place finisher is eliminated and voters’ second choices are applied to the remaining candidates.
The process repeats until someone gets a majority.
Critics say the new system poses logistical difficulties and, even worse, could violate the Maine Constitution which declares the winner by a plurality, not majority, and requires votes to be collected locally.
Former Secretary of State Bill Diamond said it’ll be far more expensive and complicated than imagined.
“I think it’s going to be a huge mess, and it’s going to be costly, and it’s unconstitutional, said Diamond, a state senator from Windham.
Supporters say the constitutionality has been upheld elsewhere and several prominent lawyers and law professors believe it’d pass muster in Maine, too.
If ranked-choice voting is approved, then there would be an 18-month period to figure out how it would work for primary and general elections.
It’s been a low-key campaign, and polls suggest many voters are undecided.
The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting is about to release its first TV ads. Beyond that, supporters have been focusing on house parties and beer tastings, the most recent of which featured a “ballot” of four frosty beverages at Foundation Brewing.
Leslie Olson, of Yarmouth, one of the beer ballot participants, said she likes the idea of empowering those who’d like to vote for an independent or third-party candidate but fear that their vote would be wasted on a “spoiler” candidate.
“You can’t vote for them or you’d feel like you’re throwing away your votes. Therefore, third-party candidates don’t stand a chance,” Olson lamented.
Many supporters point out that such a system could’ve thwarted the election of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who was twice elected in three-way races where a popular independent was accused of playing the spoiler role.
But the idea has been percolating for years in Maine, where the winner in nine out of the past 11 gubernatorial elections has failed to get at least 50 percent of the vote.
The League of Women Voters began studying the idea in 2008, after Democrat John Baldacci was re-elected with 38 percent of the popular vote in 2006, said Jill Ward, state president.
Part of the appeal is that the proposed system gives a stronger voice to political independents that comprise the largest voting bloc in Maine, she said. Under the system, major party candidates would be encouraged to court mainstream voters — not just party faithful.
Supporters point to success in Portland. So far, though, the winner with the most first-place votes has always come out on top in two mayoral elections in Maine’s largest city.
However, the 2010 mayoral election in Oakland, California, showed how a candidate can come up short despite winning the most first-place votes. In that election, the front-runner was beaten by a candidate on the strength of nearly 25,000 second- and third-place votes.
Less than two weeks ago, California Gov. Jerry Brown Jr., former mayor in Oakland, vetoed a bill to expand ranked-choice voting.
“In a time when we want to encourage voter participation, we need to keep voting simple. Ranked choice voting is overly complicated and confusing,” Brown said in his veto message. “I believe it deprives voters of genuinely informed choice.”