Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R-ME) is not popular. The Real Clear Politics polling average shows him commanding just 38.4 percent of the vote. Huffington Post shows him slightly weaker at 38.3 percent. No poll tracked by either outlet has ever shown him earning more than 41 percent of the vote in his bid for reelection.
And yet, LePage could wind up narrowly winning a second term this November, not because he has the support of his states’ voters, but because of the unfortunate method Maine uses to count votes.
LePage, a Republican, is currently battling two opponents, Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud and a former Carter administration official and independent candidate named Eliot Cutler. Thus, LePage is the only major conservative candidate in a race that features two candidates well to his left. The result is that the non-LePage vote has been split between Michaud and Cutler. Although nearly 55 percent of the state’s voters oppose LePage, only about 39 percent are committed to Michaud, the stronger of the two non-LePage candidates.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it should. In 2010, LePage also squared off against Cutler and a Democratic candidate named Libby Mitchell. Although only 38 percent of the state voted for LePage, that was enough to place him ahead of the two more liberal candidates. And LePage didn’t actually have to win a majority of the state’s support, he just had to bring in more votes than the other two candidates.
This system, which is known as “first-past-the-post” voting, is a common method of counting ballots. It also makes little sense in races with more than two candidates. In a three-way race with two liberals and one conservative, the conservative will have an advantage because the left-leaning vote will be split — that’s what happened in the 2000 presidential race, thanks to Ralph Nader. Similarly if the race has two conservatives and one liberal, the liberal will have an unfair advantage. In either case, the winning candidate is likely to be chosen by a mathematical accident, not by the will of the people.
As ThinkProgress previously explained, there are alternatives to first-past-the-post voting that Maine could adopt to prevent situations where an unwanted governor is elected — and potentially reelected. In Louisiana, for example, all of the candidates run together in a “jungle primary,” and then the top two candidates compete in a run-off if neither one wins a majority. Another system, known as “instant runoff voting,” allows voters to rank their choices. Under this system, losing candidates are eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the voter’s next choice until one candidate emerges with a majority of the votes. Thus, in 2000, Nader voters who listed Nader first and Vice President Al Gore second could have prevented a candidate they liked less than either one of these men — George W. Bush — from becoming president.
Similarly, the use of either system in Maine would most likely prevent an unpopular governor like LePage from being reelected, barring a sudden surge in his popularity close to election day.