If there is ever an issue on which voters should have the ultimate say, it is on the exercise of democracy itself. With ranked-choice voting, we are at an important moment for democracy in Maine, and we are counting on legislators to do the right thing.
Last November, more than 388,000 people voted to give themselves more choice and more voice at the ballot box by approving ranked-choice voting. It was the second most votes of any referendum in Maine history, and the reasons people voted for the law are as urgent today as they were before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s recent opinion.
The court suggests in its opinion that the law conflicts with the Maine Constitution for some state-level races but not for others. Since there are no constitutional questions that arise from using ranked-choice voting in federal elections or state primaries, the law as enacted by the people should be implemented for these races. With the 2018 elections for U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives upcoming, as well as state primary races, the Maine secretary of state can and should make the necessary preparations for ranked-choice voting.
The advisory opinion offered by the supreme court relates only to constitutional concerns around the general election for state offices. To fulfill the will of the people for these elections and to avoid any constitutional uncertainty, the Legislature needs to advance an amendment that simply updates the constitutional language.
There is plenty of time for the Legislature to send out the constitutional amendment to the voters, and if approved in November there is more than enough time for smooth implementation of ranked-choice voting for these other 2018 elections, too.
The issues that gave rise to Maine people’s desire for a better system are not going away, and they were not negated by the court’s opinion. Including primaries, there were 15 candidates for governor in 1994, eight candidates in 1998, five candidates in 2002, eight candidates in 2006 and 15 candidates in 2010. The 2014 election was an anomaly with just three candidates, but even in that race many felt that “spoiler effects” and “strategic voting” were dominating aspects of the election’s multicandidate dynamics. The slate for 2018 seems almost certain to be another crowded one.
Of the last 11 gubernatorial elections in Maine, only two have had a majority winner; five have been won with less than 40 percent support.
Ranked-choice voting is by far the most sensible way for voters to decide given the likelihood of numerous candidates on the ballot once again. It narrows the field one-by-one by eliminating candidates with the fewest votes in each run-off round until a candidate has a majority. The result is a winner who is broadly representative of what the most people want in their leader.
Instead, the Legislature is considering a bill to repeal ranked-choice voting altogether. This law was not a knee-jerk reaction to one election, one party or one candidate. It was developed thoughtfully over time, as a policy that honors basic democratic values, puts more power in the hands of voters, and produces election outcomes that better reflect the will of the people. It also holds the added promise of improving the civility of elections and increasing voter turnout. And we now have clear guidance from the court to avoid any constitutional uncertainty with the law’s implementation. To repeal the law now would be an affront to Maine voters and to the very thoughtful, deliberative process that brought us to this point.
Members of the Legislature asked for the court’s advice on ranked-choice voting. Now that we have it, our elected representatives should respect the will of the voters, move forward a constitutional amendment to address concerns raised by the court and get on with implementing the law. Ranked-choice voting was enacted by the people to improve the operation of our democracy, and the people should be heard.
Jill Ward is president of the League of Women Voters of Maine. Dick Woodbury is chair of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting.