The Game-Changing Election Reform That Could Soon Be The Law In Maine


University of Minnesota students voted at Coffman Memorial Union in Minneapolis on November 6, 2012.

Four years ago, 62 percent of Maine voters cast their ballots for someone other than the man who would go on to become governor, Paul LePage. Up for re-election this year, a majority of Maine voters again opposed LePage. Again, he won.

That’s because Maine, like nearly every state, currently uses “first-past-the-post” voting, in which the winning candidate is simply the one who receives more votes than any other candidate. This system works well when there are two candidates facing off because the winning candidate will inherently have received a majority of the votes. However, first-past-the-post begins to look silly when more candidates come into the mix. The 2012 Iowa GOP presidential caucuses, for example, featured a slate of seven candidates, but less than a quarter of caucus-goers supported the ultimate winner, Rick Santorum. (Iowa also uses an arcane process to assign delegates among the candidates after the caucuses have already happened, though, under a first-past-the-post system, Santorum would have won the entire contest in Iowa.)

Organizers in Maine are out to prevent future scenarios like these where candidates are elected with a minority of the vote. The Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting is currently collecting signatures to force a referendum on the matter in 2015. The group has already gotten more than 45,000 signatures and aims to get about 15,000 more before it submits the list for certification in early January.

Ranked-Choice Voting, or RCV, works by having voters rank candidates in order of preference, rather than casting a single vote. Here’s an example:

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 9.44.39 PM

CREDIT: “Preferential ballot” by Wikipedia uploader was Rspeer

These ballots are then tallied to ensure that the ultimate winner is preferred by a majority of voters. For example, take the 2010 Maine gubernatorial election’s three main candidates. LePage received 38 percent of the vote, while Independent candidate Eliot Cutler took 36 percent and Democrat Libby Mitchell received 19 percent. Cutler and Mitchell split the liberal vote in traditionally-blue Maine, allowing a highlycontroversial Republican to win.

But what if Maine had used RCV in 2010? Because no candidate received a majority of votes in the first round, RCV works by eliminating the last place candidate — in this case Mitchell — and redistributing her votes based on her voters’ preferences. In the second round, any voter who had ranked Mitchell first and Cutler second would have their vote given to Cutler. Since most Democrats would have probably preferred the Independent over the Republican, Cutler could have easily won a majority of the vote in the second round, and LePage never would have become governor.

Rather than requiring a separate run-off election to ensure a majority, RCV’s works instantaneously based on voters’ listed preferences, hence the program’s alternate name Instant-Runoff Voting, or IRV. Successive rounds and eliminations continue until one candidate receives a majority of votes.

Advocates tout RCV as far more democratic than first-past-the-post because it more accurately reflects the voters’ will. It also has other benefits. Independent State Sen. Dick Woodbury, who is helping spearhead the campaign, told ThinkProgress it will encourage more campaign civility “because candidates need to appeal not just to their die-hard supporters, but to the broader public too.” After all, under RCV, second-choice votes can matter as much as first-choice votes.

RCV also prevents strategic voting, whereby a voter casts his ballot for a candidate who isn’t his first choice because he doesn’t want to “waste” his vote on a candidate he thinks has little hope of winning. As a result, RCV is also the most practical method of opening up the current two-party system and giving third-party candidates a chance of winning.

This happened in Burlington, Vermont’s 2009 mayoral election, where four principal candidates faced off — a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent, and a Progressive Party candidate. In the first round, Republican Kurt Wright received a plurality — but far less than a majority — of votes in the highly-liberal city. However, after the Independent and the Democrat were eliminated in successive rounds, Progressive Bob Kiss ultimately prevailed. (Burlington previously used RCV in its mayoral elections, although this practice has since been repealed.)

State Rep. Diane Russell (D), who is co-chairing the RCV campaign, praised its ability to get beyond just Democrats and Republicans. “Voters deserve a system that embraces a full marketplace of ideas in our elections without running the risk of spoiling the vote,” Russell told ThinkProgress. “In short, folks should be able to vote their hopes, not their fears.”

RCV is currently used in many U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Maine’s own Portland, as well as various elections around the world, including in Australia, India, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Papua New Guinea. However, if voters approve the referendum next year, Maine would become the first state to use RCV in statewide elections.