Fair elections suffer a terrible loss in court

The Donald Trump of Maine has something to celebrate.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) and Donald Trump, two men who owe their jobs to terrible electoral systems. CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) and Donald Trump, two men who owe their jobs to terrible electoral systems. CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Last November, as voters across the country delivered a stunning second-place victory to Donald Trump, voters in Maine backed a reform that would protect the state against the kind of undemocratic result that placed Trump in the White House.

Maine chose to enact ranked-choice voting, a system where voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference rather than simply voting for a single candidate for each office. This allows votes for a weak candidate to be reallocated to the voter’s second choice, thus ensuring that third-party candidates do not act as spoilers who divide the vote and hand the election to someone that only a small portion of the state supports.

Yet, despite the Maine electorate’s decision to implement this innovative method of counting votes, ranked-choice voting will not take effect in Maine. On Tuesday, the state supreme court said that it violates the state constitution.

The state’s attempted experiment with ranked-choice voting was a response to its accidental governor, Republican Paul LePage. LePage, a Donald Trump-like figure known for his racist outbursts and draconian policies, would have never become governor if ranked-choice voting were in place.


In 2010, when LePage first ran for the office, he squared off against two similar candidates — Democrat Libby Mitchell and Eliot Cutler, an “independent” who worked for Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie. Mitchell and Cutler wound up splitting the Democratic vote — Cutler won 36 percent and Mitchell received 19 percent — allowing LePage to win the election despite the fact that he won only 38 percent of the vote.

Had ranked-choice voting been in place, Mitchell’s votes would have been reallocated to her voters’ second-choice candidate, who in nearly all cases was likely to be Cutler and not LePage.

A similar narrative later played out in 2014, when Democrat Mike Michaud won 43.4 percent of the vote and Cutler won 8.4 percent. Together, their votes added up to a majority, and yet LePage was reelected.

The Maine Supreme Court’s decision striking down Maine’s ranked-choice voting initiative is not especially surprising. Nor is it wrong as a matter of law. Maine’s constitution provides that the governor shall be elected “by a plurality of all votes returned.” That language prevents the state from defending itself against spoiler candidates. As the state supreme court explains, ranked-choice voting “prevents the recognition of the winning candidate when the first plurality is identified.”

Maine could still amend its constitution to allow ranked-choice voting, but that could be a heavy lift in a deeply divided state legislature. Republicans control the state senate by a single vote, and Democrats have a narrow majority in the state house. Amending the state constitution, meanwhile, requires a two-thirds vote in both houses.