AUGUSTA, Maine — Question 5 on Maine’s November ballot won’t change the way the state votes in most elections, but in a close race with more than two candidates, it could take weeks to find out who won.
It’s one of the more unprobed logistical hurdles of this year’s proposal for ranked-choice voting, which would make Maine the first state in the nation to use it statewide in gubernatorial, congressional and legislative races with two or more candidates.
The method is pitched as a popular antidote to plurality elections — a sore spot for some in Maine, where only two governors have won majorities in Maine’s last 11 races for the Blaine House. However, research in cities has shown that the more complicated ballot can reduce voter turnout or cause “voter fatigue,” which leads to some ballots getting disqualified.
Because of a shift in election duties from the municipal level to the state, it could take longer to declare unofficial winners in some big races. But most won’t be affected, and proponents say other law changes — which will likely be needed anyway if Question 5 passes — could speed up results reporting.
Like now, we’ll know who won most races on election night. But it could take three weeks in close, crowded and important statewide races.
Ranked-choice voting would allow Maine voters to rank candidates in order of preference, so in practice the referendum will only lead to changes in races with three or more candidates.
In those races, a winner is declared if a majority picks a candidate as their first choice. But if not, the candidate with the lowest number of first-place votes is eliminated and second-place votes for that candidate are factored into a new count. The process is repeated until someone wins a round’s majority.
On election night, news organizations collect unofficial results from city and town clerks across Maine. That will continue, making it easy to ascertain winners in majority races. But runoff rounds will have to be run centrally by the Maine secretary of state’s office, so second choices won’t be known immediately.
Getting ballots to Augusta will be an elaborate process. State law prohibits voting information from being transmitted electronically, so the Maine State Police will have to transport tabulator data or physical ballots from every city and town in the state to a central location. It’s estimated that this would cost $150,000 in fuel and personnel costs per year.
In statewide elections, Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, said it could take three weeks for those elections to be decided. In legislative races, she said it could take two weeks.
The law’s implementation may be delayed by constitutional questions, and proponents say Maine could tweak the law after the fact to make things more efficient.
If ranked-choice voting passes, it’s not on a fast track.
The bill targets implementation for 2018 and Attorney General Janet Mills has flagged two constitutional concerns that could further hinder enactment — that it doesn’t allow for plurality elections and it relies on state and not municipal officials to count ballots. Republican opponents have said that’s a reason to vote against it.
Kyle Bailey, the campaign manager for the pro-referendum Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, said the Maine Legislature could iron out issues with the law, while others could be solved through the rulemaking process that passage would trigger.
He said the process could be accelerated by repealing the law prohibiting electronic transmission of ballots. Now, a secure network for ballots could cost more than having state police pick them up, but the cost could go down in the future.
“The question for voters now is: Do we want to change the way we elect leaders to address these concerns?” he said.