Ranked Choice Voting Approved for Maine Primaries

By Lura Jackson


Following a series of challenges to a 2016 people’s referendum in which 52 percent of voters statewide chose to approve Ranked Choice Voting [RCV], the Maine Supreme Court has ruled that the June 12th primaries will go forward with the new method of voting. Whether or not the November elections will follow suit will be determined by a new referendum in which voters can express their wishes in June.

Ranked Choice Voting enables voters to rank their selections rather than choosing only one option. In the most recent gubernatorial elections, the race was split between three candidates as a result of the state’s strong tradition of independent affiliation. “Ranked Choice Voting gives voters more voice and more power in our democracy. It is simple and fair,” said in a release by Cara McCormick, Treasurer of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting.

For those who have supported RCV from the beginning – such as Peggy Bayliss of Calais – the court’s ruling is a welcomed relief. “I am of course, thrilled,” Bayliss said. “The issues in the last run at the Supreme Court seemed contrived to derail this election process, and I am very glad it did not.”

Bayliss was among the volunteers that initially collected signatures around Washington County in 2016 with FairVoteMaine. When the Maine Legislature voted to delay RCV until 2021 and to repeal it entirely in 2022 if no constitutional amendment was passed, she helped to collect some of the nearly 66,000 signatures – 5,000 more than were needed – to put Question 1 on the June 12th ballot for a people’s veto of the delay.

If Question 1 is approved by Maine voters on June 12th, RCV will be used going forward in Maine, including for the federal elections in November. If it does, it will be the first state in the nation to do so.

How RCV determines a victor

RCV has been challenged in the past by both the Republican and Democratic parties, both of which have benefitted at times from the plurality election system. The Democratic party moved to support RCV in 2016 after recognizing that its candidates may benefit from the ranking system when three candidates for governor are in the race.

The recent challenges to RCV have come on the basis that it does not follow the state constitution, which asserts that a plurality is required. According to Bayliss, it is not unconstitutional as the system is designed to award a plurality when it is employed.

In June, Bayliss explained, voters will see a list of candidates with a series of ovals next to their name – the same number of ovals as the number of candidates in the race, plus one for a write-in option. The Democratic primary, for example, will have a total of nine ovals. Each oval corresponds to a ranking, giving voters the option of ranking every one of the nine potential candidates to their preference.

When the votes are tabulated, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent (plus 1) of the 1st-choice vote, then two steps occur. The first is the elimination of the candidate with the fewest 1st-choice votes, and the second is the addition of the votes from that candidate’s pool that ranked the remaining candidates as their 2nd choice.

As an example involving Candidates A, B, and C, Candidate A receives 1,000 votes in the initial round, Candidate B receives 800 votes in that round, and Candidate C gets only 300 votes. No candidate has received the 50% + 1 threshold required to win (1051 votes). As a result, a second round of tabulation is required. In this example, Candidate C, with the fewest votes, is eliminated, or defeated. Candidate C’s ballots contained subsequent choices of 199 votes for Candidate B and 101 votes for Candidate A.  

Candidate A now has 1,000 + 101 for a total of 1101, while Candidate B received an additional 199 votes plus the initial 800 for a total of 999. Candidate A, with 1,101 votes has also reached the required threshold. Candidate B is defeated. Tabulations end when one candidate receives that threshold number of votes, or the highest number of ballots.

For voters, all of these formulations will be happening in the background. The end result, advocates assert, is a system that better reflects the wish of the majority of voters.

Local popularity of RCV

Support for RCV locally has been divided, with some of the divisions following party lines. The voters of Eastern Washington County are primarily independent in their affiliation, though a mixture of Republicans and Democrats are also present.

In Calais, where 955 voters are independent, 678 are Republican, and 487 are Democrat, support for RCV in 2016 was 55.8 against and 44.2 in support. In Baileyville, which has 416 independent voters, 290 Democrats, and 262 Republicans, 52.9 percent voted against RCV while 47.1 were in favor. Robbinston, which has 163 Republicans, 129 independents, and 106 Democrats, the vote was split evenly at 50-50. In Eastport, where 435 voters are Democrats, 338 are independent, and 306 are Republican, 54 percent voted in favor and 46 voted against RCV.

The effect of RCV being implemented at the primaries will not be felt by the majority of voters as only those who are registered Democrat or Republican can vote in their respective primaries in Maine. However, all Mainers will be able to vote on Question 1, which will determine whether or not RCV moves forward in November.

If it does move ahead, all municipalities will receive training, with the hand-count-based municipalities being trained first. “Being a machine voting town, I’m not sure how this will affect us here in Calais,” shared City Clerk Theresa Porter. “I will have to wait and see once the training has been completed.”