Bill to create Maine presidential primary, adopt ranked-choice voting comes with hefty price tag

The State House in Augusta.
The State House in Augusta. Buy Photo
Posted May 06, 2013, at 2:16 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine would replace party caucuses with a nonpartisan presidential primary and elect its governor, legislators and federal officials with ranked-choice voting under a system proposed Monday in the Legislature.

The multimillion-dollar cost of implementing the bill could prove to be its biggest challenge, given the state’s financial situation, according to the state’s election chief.

Rep. Deane Rykerson, D-Kittery, who introduced LD 1422 to the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Monday, said that his proposal would eliminate the state’s caucusing and party-by-party primary system in favor of a single primary election in which candidates would have the option of declaring their party membership or not. Rykerson said the system would prompt more voters to cast ballots based on the candidate and not his or her political party.

“Last summer and fall, campaigning for state representative, I knocked on every door in my district,” he said. “The comment I heard most was not about taxes or even jobs. What I heard was a plea to get our government functional and representative without entrenched party politics, especially in Washington, D.C.”

At the ballot box, according to Rykerson’s bill, voters would choose their top candidate and indicate their second, third, fourth choices and so on. The secretary of state’s office, armed with new voting software and technology deployed across Maine, would be able to conduct instant runoffs based on the ranked choices of voters, eliminating the lowest vote-getter in each round until two candidates remained, one of whom would more than 50 percent of the total vote.

In Maine’s current system, voters mark only one candidate’s name on the ballot and no matter how many candidates there are, the one who receives the most votes wins, even if that’s far less than 50 percent of all ballots cast. In recent gubernatorial elections, that system has led to the perception among some that voting for a third-party candidate can siphon support away from a similarly minded candidate and end up bolstering the person who the voter least preferred.

In 2010, for example, Republican Gov. Paul LePage won with 37.6 percent of the vote, topping independent Eliot Cutler, a former Democrat, by less than 2 percent. Democrat Libby Mitchell received about 19 percent of the vote. Similarly, in 2006, Democrat John Baldacci won his second term as governor with 38 percent of the vote among a five-candidate field.

“I keep hearing from voters about their disinterest in elected government, about their alienation from the political process,” said Rykerson. “Anything we can do to regain trust and build an engaged voting public is a step forward.”

But Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, Maine’s director of elections, said Rykerson’s bill would present numerous challenges, not the least of which would be funding.

Just in the cost of printing, a nonpartisan presidential primary could cost nearly $500,000 more than is budgeted for presidential election ballots, Flynn testified Monday. Instant runoff voting would cost even more. The cost of nearly 5,000 high-tech voting machines across Maine capable of transmitting and tabulating runoff votes instantaneously would approach $15 million. There also would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in other one-time equipment and software expenses.

The bill, which is titled An Act to Establish a Nonpartisan Primary and Presidential Primary Election System and Instant Runoff Voting for State and Federal Candidates, will be scheduled for a work session in the coming days.

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