Last November, I voted “no” on Question 5, the referendum that asked voters whether they wanted to enact ranked-choice voting for primary and general elections. I did so because, as a candidate for the Maine Senate, I shared concerns with voters in my district about the potential for confusion and depressed turnout, as well as the possibility of chaos taking hold in a disputed election caused by the system. In addition, as a Maine former attorney general, I concurred with the legal opinion presented by Attorney General Janet Mills that ranked-choice voting raised constitutional concerns.
After the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s unanimous advisory opinion last month that ranked-choice voting would be unconstitutional for use in three statewide elections, I decided to co-sponsor legislation — LD 1625 — to repeal the law in its entirety. But after listening to testimony and reviewing the facts, I changed my mind. I have always appreciated the importance and necessity of constitutional compliance, which is why I now support preserving all constitutional parts of this law.
Lawmakers should not overrule the more than 388,000 Maine people from across the political spectrum who voted last November to enact ranked-choice voting, the second largest referendum vote in our state’s history. As I heard from some of these voters in public testimony, I realized they were rightfully astonished and offended by the prospect of full repeal. There is an opportunity for middle ground.
Simultaneously, the Legislature can respect the opinion of the supreme court and uphold the will of the people with a partial implementation of the law. This would involve immediately implementing ranked-choice voting for the seven primary and federal elections for which there are no constitutional questions, and indefinitely postponing the implementation of ranked-choice voting for the three statewide general elections until a constitutional amendment is ratified by the Legislature and voters.
Ranked-choice voting would work as follows for those federal and primary elections: Voters would have the opportunity to rank as few or as many candidates as they like in order of their individual preferences. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice rankings, the candidate with fewest first-choice rankings would be eliminated, and each voter who liked that candidate the best have their vote instantly counted for their second choice. This process would repeat until the field of candidates is narrowed and the candidate with a majority wins.
In the general elections for governor, state Senate and state House, voters would stick with the pick-one, first-past-the-post system until a constitutional amendment is passed.
I have spoken with Portland voters who have told me that they use ranked-choice voting to elect their mayor but not their council members. They have told me that it isn’t confusing. I have been presented with research from other cities that use ranked-choice voting that tells the same story.
Time will tell if that holds true in statewide elections in Maine, but for now, I am satisfied that this system can be implemented for the 2018 election in races where there are no constitutional issues and that adequate voter education can be carried out.
I did not support Question 5 in November, and I do not like ranked-choice voting as a policy today. But like U.S. Sen. Angus King, who expressed his concern about a full repeal of the law in an interview with Maine Public last week, I do not wish to instigate any further distrust in the political process or in government as a whole.
The campaign season is over. Maine people spoke. In the case of ranked-choice voting, there are no constitutional concerns about using it in seven of the 10 elections as approved by voters. I intend to honor the will of the people by supporting legislation that immediately implements ranked-choice voting for those elections and bringing the voter-approved law into constitutional compliance.
Michael Carpenter, a Democrat from Houlton, represents District 2 in the Maine Senate.