April 23, 2019
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Maine races to implement ranked-choice voting before June primaries

Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Patten Election Warden Linda Lyons helps a voter put his ballot in the box at the Patten fire station.

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine election officials are racing to implement a new voting system in time for the June primary, marking the first use of ranked-choice voting in statewide primary elections.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap plans to submit proposed rules governing the voting method by month’s end.

“It is exciting to finally have a clear mandate of what we’re doing. But it’s also very daunting because we’ve never done this before,” Dunlap said. “You get only one crack at it. There are no do-overs in elections.”

The system lets voters rank candidates from first to last. A candidate who wins an outright majority of first-place votes is declared the winner.

But if there’s no majority winner, then it could take a week or more for ballots to be brought to Augusta, entered into a computer and tabulated. Under the system, last-place candidates are eliminated. There are additional tallies until there’s a majority winner.

The aggressive timetable came into play when ranked-choice voters submitted signatures to force a statewide vote to repeal a legislative delay.

The signatures were certified March 5, allowing ranked-choice voting to be used in June on the same day voters decide whether it’ll be used going forward. Election officials estimate the system will add about $800,000 to the cost of the June election, bringing the total to about $1 million.

Ranked-choice voting proponents say the system eliminates the impact of spoilers or extremists who lack centrist appeal.

Kyle Bailey, from the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, said the state is leading the way.

“Folks across the country are looking to Maine to see how it goes,” he said.

Nationwide, more than a dozen cities have adopted ranked-choice voting, but it’s only been used once in a statewide election of a North Carolina judge in 2010.

In Maine, there are many things to be sorted out before June.

The state must determine the ballot layout and the secure transfer of ballots. There has to be an effort to educate voters that the outcomes may not be known right away. The process has to be done quickly but in a thorough and transparent way to ensure voters have faith in the outcome, Dunlap said.

There’s been something of a tortured path for ranked-choice voting in Maine.

Voters adopted the election overhaul with a statewide referendum in November 2016, but the state supreme court concluded that the system runs afoul of the Maine Constitution when it comes to general elections for legislative and gubernatorial races. Thus, the system currently applies only to primary elections and to federal races in general elections in Maine.

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Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that the June 12 people’s veto vote would determine whether ranked-choice voting would be used in Maine’s November general elections. Even if the people’s veto passes, ranked-choice voting would only apply to congressional elections in November. The system is not slated to be used in November for legislative and gubernatorial elections.

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