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.