AUGUSTA, Maine — The organizers of an effort to bring ranked choice voting to Maine say they have pulled within striking distance of their goal to force a statewide referendum on the issue with only a month left until the deadline to put the question on the 2015 ballot.
Former independent Sen. Richard Woodbury, principal officer for the Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting, said Wednesday his group has collected more than 45,000 signatures and aims to handily eclipse 61,000 signatures by Jan. 7. The deadline for the group to submit signatures to municipalities for certification is Jan. 12.
In ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference, in essence voting for more than one candidate. If none of the candidates receive a majority of the initial vote total — at least 50 percent — the lowest performing candidate is eliminated. The ballots with that candidate listed as a first preference are recounted with the second-choice votes tallied and third choice, if necessary, until one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.
Normally, petition drives in Maine take months, but the ranked choice voting initiative, which was launched in late October, when the petition forms were released by the secretary of state’s office, collected more than 36,000 signatures on Election Day alone.
Woodbury, who opted not to run for re-election this year, said the group is using volunteer and paid signature gatherers.
“We’re starting to fundraise, and basically enough funding is coming in on a weekly basis to support our costs on a weekly basis,” he said. “It’s very much grassroots donations at this point.”
Proponents of ranked choice voting say it allows voters to list their preferences, casting their top-line vote for the candidate of their choice without having to worry about being a strategic voter.
The most recent and well-known situations that might have benefitted from ranked choice voting were Maine’s 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial elections, which featured five candidates and three candidates, respectively. Some believed left-leaning independents, particularly in 2010, spoiled the election for the Democratic candidates. Republican Gov. Paul LePage was victorious in both elections with less than 50 percent of the total vote.
According to a new study released this week by a national group called Smart Politics, more governors were elected in 2014 without the support of a majority of voters than in any election in the past 100 years. A total of 10 governors in the U.S. were elected in 2014 without majority support.
That trend is growing. Smart Politics found the percentage of plurality elected governors hovered around 5 percent in the mid-20th century, grew to 10 percent in the 1970s and ’80s and has jumped to more than 20 percent in the current decade.
“The last time the U.S. has seen this rate of governors elected without the support of the majority of the electorate was a century ago when progressives split the Republican Party and support for the Socialist Party was peaking,” read a press release from Smart Politics, which is a project of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Woodbury said ranked choice voting would have ripple effects far beyond Election Day.
“There are all kinds of issues that need attention, and Maine’s economy is perhaps the centerpiece of that,” Woodbury said. “The political system that we have to address those issues has become increasingly dysfunctional because of partisanship and the very way we elect people to public office. This reform has the potential to fundamentally change the tone of our campaigns in a positive way that can almost be a catalyst for a whole new approach to politics that helps us deal with the substantial issues that face us.”
Woodbury and others have tried and failed to enact ranked choice voting through bills in the Legislature, but those efforts have been unsuccessful. Opponents argue it would create a logistical nightmare for Maine’s nearly 500 municipalities and cost millions of dollars in startup costs.
However, it has worked at the local level. In 2011, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who had an 850-vote lead in initial returns against 14 other candidates, ended up victorious with more than 50 percent of the vote in the 14th runoff round. The final result was not known until about 24 hours after the polls closed.