On Tuesday, Maine primary voters will participate in a ranked-choice voting experiment so unprecedented that the state’s top election official sometimes compares what’s about to happen to a perilous space mission.
“This is a little bit like Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star,” Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said. “You get one pass.”
No other state has done this: swapped voting methods from one in which voters pick their favorite candidate for one in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. Ranked-choice voting is used to elect the Australian House of Representatives, the president of Ireland and several other countries, but its use in the U.S. is confined to a smattering of city elections.
And ever since Maine voters ratified its use statewide in 2016, a swarm of logistical, political and legal obstacles have combined to limit its use in this year’s elections and threatened to derail its closely-watched debut.
Republicans view the system as an attempt to prevent conservatives from winning statewide elections. They’ve responded with a multi-pronged assault that includes multiple court challenges and blocking funding to help Dunlap’s office set up the system and educate voters about how to use it.
None of those factors will prevent voters from using the system June 12 in primary races for governor and to determine the Democratic challenger to U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin in the 2nd Congressional District.
But taken together, the wrangling could create the conditions for a messy rollout and future lawsuits. It could also lead to the eventual repeal of an election law that some voters approved because of one man, Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
Altered Politics, Altered Elections
LePage has referred to himself as “Trump before Trump.” He is similarly beloved by his supporters and loathed by his critics.
He has upended the state’s reputation for cross-party collegiality with the relentless targeting of political foes, whether they’re Republican or Democrat.
But the governor has changed more than tenor. He also inspired a radical change in the method Maine uses to pick its elected officials.
In ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff, the candidate must obtain a majority to win. It is only used in races with more than two candidates, which is often the case in Maine, a state where independents have been elected governor and Congress.
Voters rank candidates in order of preference. If one of the candidates obtains a majority after the first count, they win. If there’s no majority winner, the ranking tabulation begins. The candidate with the fewest first-place rankings is eliminated and each of their voters’ second choices are added to the tallies of the remaining candidates. The process continues this way until the ranking tabulation produces a winner or all the ballots are exhausted.
Stephen Farrand, a registered Democrat who lives in Freeport, says he voted for ranked-choice voting in 2016 because LePage's election and re-election were “a real disaster for the state."
"I don't think it would have happened if we had not had prominent independent candidates," he said.
Dividing The Opposition
Farrand refers to a split in the center-left electorate that he and others progressives believe helped LePage’s ascension to the state’s highest office in 2010 and again in 2014.
The hard-charging conservative rode a tea party-assisted wave and a compelling story about his rise from poverty and abuse to win the GOP primary in 2010.
LePage went on to win in November, narrowly defeating independent Eliot Cutler, despite a penchant for false and inflammatory remarks on the campaign trail that would come to color his two terms in office.
The split was less pronounced when LePage won reelection in 2014, defeating Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud and Cutler once again.
But many observers here believe fears over another potential split changed the dynamic of the contest, creating a virtual primary between Cutler and Michaud as they competed for the center-left electorate.
LePage, meanwhile, largely stayed out of trouble and won more votes than he did in 2010.
A Fix For The Split?
Ranked-choice voting proposals were kicked around the Maine Legislature for years prior to LePage’s victory.
The rarely-used system was routinely rejected by both Democrats and Republicans over fears that it would benefit independent candidates while eroding the power of the political parties.
But LePage’s second victory prompted some Democrats to back the election overhaul that was proposed as a ballot initiative by a group linked to Cutler and attempting to build a political operation for independent candidates.
Nearly $3 million was raised to pass ranked-choice voting from an array of interest groups, including FairVote, a national organization that’s pushing for broader use of the system around the country
The proposal was also backed by the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive activist group known for engaging and turning out Democratic voters.
But some Democrats were wary of ranked-choice voting and its promise to moderate campaigns prevent LePages from winning without broad support.
“We’ve lived through some bad things in this world and I don’t think we should change our political system just because we don’t like Paul LePage,” said Gordon Weil, a longtime Democratic activist who lives in Harpswell.
Weil said during the 2016 campaign that ranked-choice voting isn’t a panacea to a polarized electorate.
“Even in this form of voting you’re not going to change human behavior. Our problem is we can’t find out how to compromise. And that’s done by people, not by voting machines,” he said.
Hobbled By The Court
Ranked-choice was approved by nearly 400,000 Mainers in 2016, but it wasn’t long before it was in the crosshairs of legislators whose electoral aspirations could be affected by its future use.
The Maine Senate, controlled by the GOP, asked the Maine Supreme Court to determine whether ranked-choice violated an obscure provision of the state Constitution that requires winners of gubernatorial and legislative elections get elected with a plurality, or the most votes.
The constitutional conflict had been raised before, including by state election officials, but supporters assured backers that the system was lawful.
In the spring of 2017, the court disagreed, and wrote a unanimous opinion stating that a general election using ranked choice would likely face a legal challenge.
It wasn’t a ruling, but it gave opponents of ranked-choice voting in the Legislature sufficient political cover to push for a delay and eventual repeal of the law.
Meanwhile, supporters were unable to muster enough support to send a constitutional amendment to voters.
Late in 2017, the Legislature passed a bill that delays and repeals the law by 2021 if no constitutional amendment is passed.
But the court’s opinion only addressed gubernatorial and legislative races in general elections. It said nothing about primary contests.
Supporters of ranked-choice, bolstered by voter resentment over the Legislature’s tinkering and repeal of other voter-approved laws, quickly organized a people’s veto of the delay-and-repeal law.
It suspended the delay-and-repeal law until voters have their say about it on June 12.
It also meant that ranked-choice voting would be used in hotly contested gubernatorial primary elections, as well as the Democratic contest for the 2nd Congressional District.
The GOP Resistance
Maine Republicans view ranked-choice voting as an existential threat.
They filed several court challenges, including one that attempted to block Maine election officials from implementing the system in June.
Republican lawmakers also blocked a bill that would have provided funding to the Secretary of State to set up the law and provide voter outreach.
And LePage refused to allow the Maine State Police to collect ballots from the state’s 500-plus municipalities in the event a ranked-choice count is required at the capitol.
The move prompted Dunlap to hire a private courier service.
Meanwhile, voter education has been largely left to town clerks and Dunlap’s office.
The four Republican candidates running for governor have taken their resistance further, suggesting that they might challenge next week’s election result in court if the ranked-choice tabulation method ultimately determines the winner.
“Ranked-choice voting is a scam,” said GOP candidate Mary Mayhew. “It's going to undermine the integrity of our election process.”
State Sen. Garrett Mason, who is also running for governor, has said repeatedly that the system is designed to prevent true conservatives from ever winning a statewide race.
The rhetoric has spurred speculation that more lawsuits await the results of the primary election.
Kathy Montejo, the city clerk in Lewiston, says voters seem to have a grasp of how ranked-choice voting works.
“They seem to find the ballot design intuitive, which is a good thing,” she said.
Montejo also said that most of the questions she receives center on whether voters have to rank more than one candidate (they don’t), and whether they can assign all the rankings to one candidate (they can’t).
Several voters who used Maine’s no-excuse absentee balloting seemed to have little trouble understanding the process when they allowed NPR to observe them voting.
Farrand, the Democrat from Freeport, found that he needed a ruler to make sure he filled in the correct bubbles.
Martha Currier, a Republican from Augusta, was ambivalent about ranking more than one candidate.
"I know I don't have to," she said, "but I feel like if I don't, maybe my second choice doesn't get in. But at the same time, I'm not crazy about this whole process."
Currier settled on ranking one.
So, far most of the confusion has centered on the people’s veto question that will determine whether ranked-choice voting is used in November - and possibly beyond.
All of the voters who allowed NPR to observe them filling out ballots found the people’s veto wording difficult to understand.
Ranked-choice voting purports to make elections less acrimonious and less partisan.
But its fate could largely be determined by voters who identify as partisans, and less so by the state’s biggest voting bloc: independents.
On June 12, every registered Maine voter will have a chance to vote on a people’s veto question that asks all Maine voters if they want to overturn a law that will repeal ranked-choice if a constitutional amendment to allow it to be used in all statewide races isn’t enacted by 2021.
But while all voters will have a say in the people’s veto outcome, how many unenrolled voters will go to the polls in June?
Maine primary elections are essentially taxpayer-funded party elections in which voters who register with a particular political party are the only ones allowed to vote in primary contests involving gubernatorial, congressional or legislative candidates.
It’s unclear if the fate of the system will be enough to turn out unenrolled voters, but supporters of ranked choice aren’t leaving anything to chance.
It has waged a full campaign to drive turnout and it’s run ads featuring actress Jennifer Lawrence to help.
Tuesday’s election will determine whether the campaign for a yes vote on Question 1 is successful.
If it’s not, then ranked-choice voting law won’t be used for congressional contests in November, and quite possibly, ever again.
And even if the people’s veto campaign is successful, the battle over Maine’s landmark voting law is far from over.