PORTLAND, Maine — Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler on Thursday reiterated calls for new voting systems in Maine, which he said would help place all candidates — regardless of their political party — on equal footing.
In a news conference at his Portland campaign office, Cutler called for Maine to begin using an open primary or ranked choice voting, the latter of which was used for the first time in the state during Portland’s 2011 mayoral race.
One of Cutler’s two major opponents in the race, six-term U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat, didn’t disagree that other voting systems should be considered.
The other, incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage, argued Cutler’s reform proposals likely would end up backfiring and more deeply entrenching the state’s two-party dominance.
“[Michaud] agrees that options such as ranked choice and runoff elections both have their merits and would look at the experience of other states that have adopted those methods — or others — to figure out reforms that work best for the people of Maine,” Lizzy Reinholt, spokeswoman for the Michaud campaign, said in a statement Thursday.
In a ranked choice voting system, voters can indicate their second, third and lesser choices. Those second- and third-choice votes are reallocated if the first-choice candidate doesn’t receive enough tallies to win outright.
Portland used ranked choice voting in its 15-candidate mayoral race in 2011, when former state lawmaker and eventual winner Michael Brennan stayed in first place through every round of the vote redistributions.
Rob Richie, a ranked choice voting advocate and head of Maryland-based group FairVote, used Cutler’s near miss in the 2010 Maine gubernatorial race as an argument for the system, saying if the second-choice votes under Democratic third-place finisher Libby Mitchell were reallocated, Cutler likely would have leapfrogged LePage into first place.
As it was, LePage won with a plurality, 38 percent compared to Cutler’s 36 percent and Mitchell’s 19 percent.
“I am sure that party leaders and special interests won’t like these reforms, but I am equally confident Maine voters will welcome them with open arms,” Cutler said Thursday.
“This campaign for governor is a race between reform and business as usual, between bold ideas and the status quo,” he continued. “Voters are hungry for much more than just a choice between what isn’t working now and what didn’t work before.”
Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, said Thursday she has advocated for ranked choice voting in the state for seven years and blasted Cutler for not being more supportive of her efforts.
“Real leaders show up for the issues they care about. I’ve been the leader on ranked choice voting since 2007 — long before it was ‘cool’ — and have submitted bills all three terms,” Russell said. “He’s never so much as sent an email to the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee — on which I serve — in support, let alone show up. Not once. This may make for a great headline. But if he really wants to move RCV forward, he’d get his facts straight before speaking.”
Michaud indicated Thursday he was open-minded about the voting reforms Cutler discussed.
“Mike believes that we need to take a comprehensive approach to reforming our electoral system to reduce the influence of money in politics and make it as easy as possible for people to make their voices heard through the voting process,” Reinholt said.
Under his open primaries option, Cutler proposed placing all candidates from all parties on one September ballot, with the top two finishers squaring off in a six-week campaign leading to Election Day in November.
Alex Willette, spokesman for the LePage campaign, suggested such a system would more likely eliminate third-party candidates from the running early. He added Cutler, who benefited from a surge in support in the final weeks before the 2010 election, may have been knocked off the November ballot altogether, had an open primary been held before his late rally.
“Eliot’s announcement today is hardly different from what he has been wandering the state complaining about since his 2010 defeat. In fact, his proposed restructure of the electoral process would have likely eliminated him from the 2010 general election,” Willette said
“These ‘reforms’ will only result in less dialogue with fewer candidates, largely benefiting the two major parties,” he continued. “Gov. LePage supports Maine’s long history of active political dialogue and inclusion of independent and third-party candidates.”
In addition to the voting reforms, Cutler said Thursday he “will seek every avenue that can pass constitutional muster to dramatically reduce the influence of money in Maine politics through reasonable and fair contribution limits and total transparency in reporting the sources of funds.”
Cutler did not specify what he felt ideal contribution limits would be but said he would seek to abolish leadership political action committees and lobbyist bundling in Maine politics.
Leadership PACs raise money to benefit politicians seeking party leadership roles, which complement funds raised directly for those candidates’ campaigns.
Lobbyist bundling refers to the practice by which lobbyists representing certain groups gather donations from individuals or other groups, then contribute the money to a preferred candidate under the lobbyist’s name. Critics say the practice allows special interest groups to shield their identity from public view by hiding their donations in bundles collected by lobbyists.
“Whatever used to be special and positive about the dominance of the two parties has been spoiled by a corrupting flood of special interest dollars that increasingly drives our political parties to the extremes — where the money is — and poisons our politics with excessive and destructive partisanship,” Cutler said.
The news conference came on the heels of Wednesday’s decision by the Maine Ethics Commission to allow individual donors to contribute a maximum of $3,000 each to any candidate in this year’s governor’s race.
That ruling was forced in part by Cutler supporters who filed a lawsuit challenging the commission’s prior practice of allowing major party candidates to accept $1,500 each for primary and general election campaigns while limiting independent candidates to $1,500 for the general election.
The change effectively doubled the amount of money individual donors can give to Cutler’s campaign this year. It also opened the door for supporters of Michaud and LePage who did not yet give those candidates $1,500 each before the primaries to give $3,000 apiece.
In the aftermath of the commission’s Wednesday decision, the Michaud campaign highlighted the congressman’s co-sponsorship of three proposed bills that “aim to rein in the tidal wave of special interest spending unleashed by” the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the so-called Citizens United case, which equates campaign contributions with constitutionally protected free speech and effectively dialed back campaign contribution limits.