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Who’s paying to convince Mainers that ranked-choice voting suits them

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, speaks at a rally of supporters of ranked choice voting, Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. The group delivered petitions aimed at thwarting a legislative delay and putting the voting system into place for state primaries in June.

A host of private foundations put the bulk of about $1.3 million into a fight to preserve ranked-choice voting in Maine primaries and federal elections, according to the latest campaign finance reports available Friday.

The effort includes an ad featuring actor Jennifer Lawrence, in a collaboration between groups that aim to fight political corruption and pave a way for third-party candidates to break into the system. The committee has spent a little less than $600,000 to produce or air television ads since mid-May. But between June 1 and June 5, it dished out $244,447 on television and cable ads.

The Chamberlain Project Ballot Question Committee, familiar to the effort that put ranked-choice voting on Maine’s ballot in 2016, has led fundraising on Question 1, which seeks to fire back at the Maine Legislature’s effective repeal of the new voting system.

The group has had a surge of late fundraising, bringing in almost a half a million dollars since May 30. The group is trailed this cycle by the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, the only other group registered to support the question.

After Mainers voted in November 2016 to implement the ranked-choice voting system, legislators asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court for an opinion on whether — as written — it runs afoul of language in the state’s Constitution. The court ruled unanimously that constitutional language dictating that elections for state office be decided by plurality caused problems for the system.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting interpreted that opinion as allowing the system to be used in congressional and primary elections, and state elections officials haltingly moved forward with plans to implement it in this year’s primaries. It will come into play in Republican and Democratic gubernatorial primaries, as well as a Democratic primary in the 2nd Congressional District and a legislative Republican primary for western Maine House district.

In October 2017, legislators passed a bill that would stall ranked-choice voting until Mainers could vote on a constitutional amendment to address the “plurality” language. That bill also included language that would pave the way for ranked-choice voting’s demise if the constitution was not amended before 2021.

In response to that law, proponents of the ranked-choice system collected enough signatures to place a people’s veto of the 2017 law on Tuesday’s ballot. Despite multiple court challenges, the presence of that people’s veto ballot question means Maine will use ranked-choice voting for primary elections on Tuesday.

However, even if the people’s veto wins on Tuesday, ranked-choice voting would only apply to congressional elections in November — because of the lingering constitutional language conflict for gubernatorial and legislative contests.

Still, a number of foundations backed by wealthy activists are seeking to preserve the limited win in Maine. Nonprofit groups, most backed by private foundations, put in about three of four dollars to groups supporting Question 1 on the June 12 ballot. About one in four dollars came from individual donors.

The Chamberlain Project committee got about 80 percent of its money from two foundations, one started by billionaires John and Laura Arnold, called The Action Now Initiative, continuing their support from 2016 that first put ranked-choice voting on Maine ballots.

Level the Playing Field, led by wealthy activist Peter Ackerman, contributed the second-highest amount to the Chamberlain Project committee, at $448,000. Ackerman has long fought for greater recognition for independent candidates on the national stage.

In 2012, Ackerman joined former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others to bankroll an ad in Maine from the group he co-founded, Americans Elect, supporting the independent U.S. Senate run of Angus King.

The question has also gotten attention from Jonathan Soros, the son of liberal billionaire George Soros and founder and CEO of the private investment firm JS Capital Management LLC. The younger Soros was the top individual donor to any of the ballot question groups, giving $100,000 to the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting this time around.

Donations from within Maine made up about 4 percent of all donations to the three groups supporting the question, according to campaign finance records from the day after the 2017 election, Nov. 8, 2017, through the end of the latest reporting period, May 29, 2018.

Businessman and former Maine Rep. Horace “Hoddy” Hildreth gave the most of all Maine-based donors, putting $10,000 into the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting. Former independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler gave the second-highest amount from Maine, giving $3,500 to the same group.

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Correction: Due to an error in Maine Ethics Commission records, a previous version of this report incorrectly included contributions to a third political action committee as supporting ranked-choice voting. Only two are registered to support the question.


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