Bill would require majority to win governor’s race in Maine

Posted March 09, 2011, at 11:40 a.m.
Last modified March 09, 2011, at 5:31 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — After a pattern of Maine governors being elected with less than a majority vote, a Republican legislator on Wednesday proposed an amendment to the state Constitution that would require more than 50 percent of the vote for that office — in a runoff if necessary.

Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton told the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee that his proposal “has nothing to do with the present administration — nothing.”

“If you decide this is something you’re going to pursue, it will obviously have some kind of financial impact,” Saviello added. He did not know what the cost of additional rounds of elections would be.

In order to take effect, the bill would need a two-thirds majority of the Legislature and then approval of voters, not an easy set of challenges.

Under present Maine law, a candidate who receives the largest number of votes, even if it’s below half of the total number of votes cast, becomes governor.

That’s exactly what has happened in the last three elections. Last November, Republican Paul LePage won with just over 38 percent of the vote, defeating a Democrat and three independents. Also with multiple candidates running, then-Democratic Gov. John Baldacci won with 38 percent of the vote four years earlier.

Baldacci secured 47 percent of the vote in his 2002 win. In 1994, independent Angus King won with 35 percent, but was re-elected with 59 percent in a five-way race in 1998.

Under Saviello’s proposed amendment, the top two finishers in similar situations would face a runoff. That would have triggered a runoff between LePage and independent Eliot Cutler in the last race.

The amendment didn’t draw much support at Wednesday’s hearing. Speaking neither for nor against, the League of Women Voters’ Michelle Small said the group has supported instant runoff policies in other states. Under such a system, candidates are ranked in order of preference by voters, so a single winner can be determined in one election. This way, the added expense and loss of voter participation associated with a runoff is avoided.

According to the Instant Runoff Voting web site, the system is used in Ireland to elect its president and Australia to elect its House of Representatives. It’s also used in San Francisco and Burlington, Vt.

Victories with less than half the votes in races for Maine’s highest state office also have drawn the attention of a newly formed activist effort under the banner of Maine’s Majority, whose web site and Facebook page reflect more of a worry about LePage’s policies than a 50 percent minimum requirement. Maine’s Majority says it’s not affiliated with any political organization, candidate or party.

Chris Korzen, a Portland political organizer associated with Maine’s Majority, said it’s “all about the policies” of LePage. Korzen acknowledged the two previous governors’ wins with less than a majority, but said “they governed in a way that was true to the values of most Maine citizens.”

LePage, the first Republican to be elected governor since 1990, has said his 2010 win was no fluke, given voters’ decision to also take majorities in both the House and Senate away from Democrats and give them to Republicans.

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