Yarmouth lawmakers propose using controversial ranked-choice voting statewide

Posted Jan. 08, 2013, at 3:25 p.m.

YARMOUTH, Maine — So long, spoilers.

That’s the message two Yarmouth legislators hope to send with legislation aimed at eliminating the chances of electing statewide candidates with less than a majority vote.

Freshman Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, and veteran legislator Sen. Dick Woodbury, U-Yarmouth, have submitted draft legislation for ranked-choice voting to the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee.

“Today, there are more third-party and unenrolled candidates, and the current system doesn’t work well when there’s a broader range,” Woodbury said. “I think that it tends to give an advantage to candidates that are more at the party extremes, and are less moderate, which can lead to candidates winning with less than 50 percent of the support from voters.”

Under Woodbury’s and Cooper’s proposed bills, the procedure for statewide elections would be similar to Portland’s mayoral elections, where voters enacted a ranked-choice system in 2011.

The system allows voters to rank candidates according to their preference: first, second, third, etc., until they no longer have a preference or all candidates have been given a ranking.

If on Election Day no candidates receive a majority of votes, an instant runoff election occurs. Candidates with the fewest first-choice votes are eliminated, with their votes redistributed among the remaining candidates. Successive rounds continue until a candidate receives a majority.

In Portland, 15 candidates ran for mayor in 2011; Michael Brennan, who held an 850-vote lead in the popular vote, was elected in the 14th runoff round, about 24 hours after the polls closed.

Although, she doesn’t yet have a co-sponsor for her bill, Cooper said she hoped to gain support from Democrats and Republicans this week on a legislative bus tour of western Maine.

“I think instituting a runoff or ranked election is simple and easy to understand. And, it works in the system well,” Cooper said. “This isn’t a major change in the way the system works.”

Cooper and Woodbury said they hope to eliminate the possibility of the “spoiler effect” and results like the last two Maine gubernatorial elections: Republican Gov. Paul LePage won a five-way race with just 38 percent of the vote in 2010, and former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, was re-elected in 2006, also with 38 percent of the popular vote.

Plurality winners are common in Maine: U.S. Sen. Angus King was the only gubernatorial candidate to win an election with a majority in the last 25 years.

Bills similar to Woodbury’s and Cooper’s have failed to make it to the House floor, victims of politics and, in large part, practicality.

Portland City Clerk Kathy Jones said implementing ranked-choice voting in the city in 2011 required intensive planning and organizing.

Existing ballot-counting systems are not capable of processing ranked votes, Jones said. The city looked at renting machines that could handle the process, but the $80,000 cost was too high.

Instead, the city hired an outside contractor, TrueBallot, to administer the new system and write special programming for the election. The company also scanned and digitized every ballot. The service cost the city about $30,000.

“Once they were done scanning, we had to upload all the ballots, which took hours,” Jones said. Some 26,000 ballots had to be digitized, and the ones with discrepancies, such as a skipped ranking or improperly filled ovals, had to be reviewed.

Would she volunteer to do it on a statewide level? Probably not.

“Every municipality would have to upload all the data to whoever was going to be figuring out the algorithm to get it all together,” Jones said. “I don’t know, on a big scale. We did ranked-choice voting with one election. If you’ve got all the seats, and you’ve got to rank every candidate, it’s something I don’t want to be in charge of.”

If the voting machines could process ranked-choice votes and aggregate them electronically, the system, especially on a large scale, would be much easier to manage, Jones said.

But right now, that’s illegal.

Under state law, ballots can’t be transmitted electronically, whether its over the Internet or a network, due to fears about the information being hacked. The law also ensures a paper trail is maintained, something opponents believe could be be lost with electronic voting systems.

The inability to aggregate voting data electronically is the biggest challenge to instituting ranked-choice voting in Maine, Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn said.

“Think of it logistically. If there’s no plurality or winner, you are bringing all the ballots to Augusta,” she said, noting that she has yet to see either draft bill and was commenting generally on ranked-choice systems. “I just don’t see any way. … It would be 500 times more complex than doing it in Portland.”

All of the nearly 500 municipalities in the state, which have 330 different ballot styles, would have to deliver their ballots to Augusta to be counted as a whole, Flynn said. Then, after the election, they would have to be taken back to the municipalities for a retention period, also required under existing law.

Despite the challenges, Flynn said her office would find a way to accommodate the Legislature if it backs the ranked-choice proposals, with a caveat that legislators should ensure the program has funding.

Without reviewing the bills, Flynn said she couldn’t provide a cost estimate.

Although, instituting ranked-choice voting systems has its challenges, Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, a proponent of ranked choice-voting, said the new support is encouraging.

“It’s great to see momentum building,” said Russell, who has been working on the issue for years, first as the director of the ranked-choice advocacy group, FairVote, and now as a legislator.

Russell, who introduced bills in previous sessions, said criticism often comes from a lack of understanding. She also acknowledged that technically, the system does have some difficulties, but said it works well in practice.

“The devil is always in the details,” Russell said. “There was so much hesitation about Portland. The folks managing the election system, they were concerned it wouldn’t work. People thought it would have all these negative effects. … It had all these opportunities to fail, in Maine’s largest city, and frankly, some people wanted it to. But at the end of the the day it was a success.”

Russell’s bills, which were previously focused solely on the governor’s race, have never made it to a floor vote.

Under Maine’s Constitution, the governor has to be elected by the same system as the Legislature.

So now Russell is going one step further. She hopes to make an amendment to the Constitution allowing different and separate voting systems for the Legislature and the governor’s office, known as bifurcation.

“We want our system to be a marketplace of ideas that does not allow for a minority candidate to win. They have to have a mandate,” Russell said. “That’s why bifurcation, a Constitutional amendment, is essential.”

Other voting systems

Nevin Brackett-Rozinsky, a computer scientist who studies election systems and now works as a staffer for King, argues that implementing ranked-choice voting systems not only has serious administrative challenges, but can produce some of the same problems as the current system.

He said ranked-choice voting can still produce situations of “voter betrayal.”

“It actually has situations where it can be in the voter’s best interest to betray their favorite, and put the front-runner in first to avoid” the possibility of someone they don’t want getting elected, Brackett-Rozinsky said.

He advocates for approval voting, which treats each candidate as a separate question, allowing voters to select more than one candidate. Whoever receives the most votes, wins the election.

But, he said, approval voting isn’t as well known as ranked-choice voting, and likely wouldn’t be politically possible right now. Still, ranked-choice voting is an improvement, he said.

Woodbury agreed.

“What concerns me is that [approval voting] doesn’t have a lot of precedent and it’s not well-known,” he said. “I’m worried it would have a difficult time moving forward in our political process. So, what I’m saying is, don’t throw out the good in trying to get the perfect. My sense is that there is a lot bigger appetite for ranked voting and that it has more political feasibility.”

Russell contends that practically, ranked-choice systems don’t have the problems raised by Brackett-Rozinsky.

“There’s no perfect system, that’s the thing,” she said. “But, If you’re looking at a system that discourages mudslinging and encourages coalition building, you’ve got to look at ranked-choice voting.”

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