AUGUSTA, Maine — Two sitting lawmakers will begin an effort Tuesday to overthrow Maine’s winner-take-all election system and replace it with one they say would allow Mainers to vote their conscience without ever feeling like they’d wasted a ballot.
Rep. Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat who is seeking re-election, and Sen. Dick Woodbury, a Yarmouth independent who is not seeking re-election, are spearheading the effort to institute ranked-choice voting. The duo said Monday that they expect to begin gathering signatures for a statewide referendum at polling places on Nov. 4.
If they succeed in convincing the state’s voters to change the electoral system, Maine would become the first state to establish statewide ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff.
Woodbury, a vocal supporter of independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, said Monday that “there has never been a clearer example” of the need for electoral reform than this year’s gubernatorial election.
Conversations about strategic voting have dominated the analysis as the majority of Mainers who disapprove of incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage wrangle over whether Cutler or six-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud stands the best chance to beat the incumbent. Supporters of each have accused the other of paving the way for LePage’s re-election by backing a “spoiler” candidate.
“All we’re talking about this cycle is poll results, spoilers, strategic voting, minority winners,” he said “All these things we see as problems with the current system are problems that are fixed by an instant-runoff system.”
The goal of ranked-choice voting is to ensure an eventual winner with as much support as possible.
On an instant runoff ballot, voters rank as many of the candidates as they choose — a “1” for their favored candidate, a “2” for their second choice, and so on. After the polls close, all the 1’s are tallied. If one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, he or she wins.
If there is no majority winner, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Then, all the second-choice votes are tallied, and added to the remaining candidates’ vote totals, and the lowest-ranked candidate is again eliminated. Additional tallies and eliminations are made until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the votes.
Russell, who supports Michaud, said the system is superior to winner-take-all elections because if a voter’s first choice is eliminated, he or she still has a say in which of the remaining candidates is eventually elected. She also said that ranked-choice voting creates an incentive for positive, civil campaigning, as evidenced by the 2011 mayoral election in Portland — the state’s first experience with ranked-choice voting.
“What we found is that there was very little — if any — mudslinging,” she said. “If you and I are running against each other, I can’t risk alienating your supporters, because I want them to pick me as their No. 2.”
Russell and Woodbury will receive the finalized petition form for the ballot initiative on Tuesday, and Woodbury said he’d register a Ballot Question Committee to run the pro-instant runoff campaign the same day. The goal, the duo said, is for Maine to begin holding ranked-choice elections in 2018.
The initiative, however, will not be without cost. Ranked-choice voting will cost more than $910,000 the first year, according to a fiscal note from the secretary of state’s office.
More than 80 percent of that cost will go toward the cost of implementing the new system, including updates and leasing new ballot tabulating machines and the hiring of two temporary law enforcement officers to oversee tabulation. The remaining money will be used by state police to pay for overtime and fuel associated with the secure transportation of ballots to and from a central tabulation location.
The state’s leases on its ballot tabulation machines expires in 2017.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.