October 16, 2018
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Maine must be ready to roll out ranked-choice voting for June primaries

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

The road to Maine’s first ranked-choice election has been long and complicated, but at each turn, the people of Maine have voiced strong support for this new voting system.

Voters spoke first during the initial petition drive in 2015. In November 2016, they affirmed their position at the polls in favor of ranked-choice voting. Now they have once again supported ranked-choice voting with the petition to veto a new law that would delay implementation until 2021.

Voters understand that this will enhance their ability to express their choice on the ballot, while also encouraging more civil, constructive campaigns.

Now the state must invest the time and resources to make a smooth transition to ranked-choice voting for the June primaries. Debates about its merits can continue, but if the people’s veto signatures are certified — which seems likely — Maine voters will have the first statewide ranked-choice election in the nation.

Maine is rightfully proud of its tradition of civil, orderly, democratic participation in elections. To continue that tradition, everyone involved needs to move quickly to prepare. To support that effort, the League of Women Voters of Maine is launching Implement RCV, a new project to provide information to all involved — especially voters in the primary elections.

Although a meaningful improvement in how we vote, ranked-choice voting will not be complicated to use. Portland has been using ranked-choice voting for mayoral races since 2011, and voters there find it easy to cast their ballots. Exit interviews show that the experience was very positive.

Ranked choice allows voters to express their true preference with no concern that their top choice might lose and that their vote would be “wasted.” With ranked-choice voting, if a voter’s top choice loses, their second choice takes over so the voter can still have an impact.

Voters can use as many or as few choices as they wish. Most voters understand that their second, third, or fourth choice could affect the outcome of the election. They are determined to use that power, and plan to rank as many candidates as they can. But they also are free to simply cast a single vote for their top choice.

Since the voters’ opinions about all the candidates can influence the result, it makes good sense to learn about all the candidates — not a problem for Maine’s engaged and well-informed electorate. Ranking several candidates — instead of a binary choice — could make this the most satisfying election yet.

It also opens the door to wider political involvement. Voters may wish to be part of this historic election. Many folks may wish to become a leader in the community to facilitate debates and discussions and help others prepare to cast their ballots. What better moment could you pick to become an Election Day official, poll watcher, or observer at your local polling place?

Maine’s election administrators will also need support. The Maine secretary of state’s office oversees more than 490 independent municipalities, each with separate polling places. Clerks and wardens have an outstanding record of administering plurality, winner-take-all elections. Their expertise will help ensure a smooth transition to ranked-choice voting.

The process should be provided the resources needed to ensure that all goes smoothly. This is not the time to starve the system. Civic and nongovernmental organizations such as the League of Women Voters of Maine plan to play an important role in educating the public and offering informational sessions across the state.

Ranked-choice voting could change how candidates campaign. Under ranked choice, candidates have every incentive to build alliances with other candidates and not to alienate voters at different points of the ideological spectrum. It will be interesting to see how many candidates grasp the advantages of running a smart and positive campaign in a ranked-choice election.

We expect Mainers to bring enthusiasm and a common-sense approach to this transition. Through this process we will discover the strengths of our democracy, and be reminded of the vital contributions made by our forebears and by the public servants who have been doing this work for many years.

As we look to June, let us all be reminded of our common faith in the democratic process. Let’s make sure that Maine’s elections continue to inspire public confidence through their accessibility, transparency and accuracy, and by honoring the full expression of the voters’ choice. Elections matter. Let’s get it right.

Jill Ward is the president of the League of Women Voters of Maine.

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