AUGUSTA, Maine — Nominees in Maine’s top-tier political races in November are now set after the first statewide election to be decided by ranked-choice voting, and the results have given us a richer profile of how Democrats decided to elect their candidates.
Republicans didn’t need ranked-choice voting in the June 12 primary elections, nominating businessman Shawn Moody for the term-limited Gov. Paul LePage’s seat with 56.5 percent of votes in a first-round landslide, according to unofficial results from the Bangor Daily News.
Two Democratic races went into ranked-choice counting, with Attorney General Janet Mills winning the gubernatorial nomination in a fourth and final round of retabulation. Assistant Maine House Majority Leader Jared Golden won the right to take on U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican from the 2nd Congressional District, in a primary that wasn’t in much doubt after Election Day.
Those numbers alone tell you that Republicans and Democrats used the new voting method differently, which could be due to the larger Democratic gubernatorial field and their more positive attitudes toward ranked-choice voting relative to Republicans.
But there’s more to be gleaned from those figures and data from a Bangor Daily News exit poll that predicted Mills’ win when used as part of a statistical model that inserted ranked choices gathered from voters in eight cities and towns behind first-round election results. All of it also sheds some light on how campaign strategies worked.
Mills and the Democratic runner-up proved to be good ranked-choice candidates, with almost all voters ranking them by the end. Unofficial election results released last week by the Maine secretary of state show how votes moved toward Mills and attorney Adam Cote, the runner-up, as others were eliminated in the seven-way Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Mills proved to be a good ranked-choice candidate, increasing her margins over Cote in each of the four ranked-choice rounds. Along the way, she expanded her 5 percentage point lead over Cote when only first choices were counted to a victory margin of more than 8.2 percentage points.
By the final ranked-choice round in which Mills beat Cote to a majority, all but nearly 8,900 of the 126,000 Democratic voters who began the ranked-choice process still had active ballots. That means that 93 percent of them ranked both Mills and Cote somewhere on their ballots.
Republicans seemed far more content to just rank one candidate. Since Moody won an outright majority, the secretary of state’s office didn’t run ranked-choice tabulations. But we can approximate them from the BDN’s exit poll of 198 Republicans.
The results tracked well with unofficial results, pegging Moody at 53 percent, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason at 26.3 percent, former Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew at 15.2 percent and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette at 4.5 percent. (They won 56.5 percent, 22.9 percent, 15 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively.)
With four candidates in the field, 69 Republicans surveyed — or 35 percent — only ranked one choice, while 47 percent of them ranked a third choice. Only 40 percent of Republicans ranked a fourth choice as the Maine Republican Party led a messaging campaign against the method.
On the Democratic side in the exit poll, only 23 of the 491 people surveyed — or less than 5 percent — ranked only one choice and 412 of them — or 83 percent — ranked three choices. However, only 25 percent ranked seven choices, which may have been the result of voter fatigue or not enough information about lower-tier hopefuls.
Some candidates tried to strategize with ranked-choice voting, but it may have not been worth the effort. Candidates tried to game the system differently. Mayhew told Republicans to only pick her. Among Democrats, former lobbyist Betsy Sweet and House Speaker Mark Eves largely ran against Mills and urged supporters to rank one of them first and the other second. Eves publicly said that Cote was his third choice.
In the end, Mayhew’s first-round support was low and Moody dominated the Republican one-candidate voters in the BDN’s poll more than he dominated the actual race, winning 46 of the 69 bullet voters. Mason got 12, Mayhew got just eight and Fredette got three.
On the Democratic side, Sweet got 38.8 percent of Eves’ voters when he was eliminated in the second round, but Mills got 32.9 percent and Cote got 28.3 percent. When Sweet was eliminated next, Mills got 54.4 percent of her voters over Cote’s 45.6 percent to clinch the race.
In short, Sweet and Eves didn’t have enough support to last in the race. Their supporters liked Mills more than Cote. It ended up clinching the race for Mills as it was going in that direction anyway. Perhaps it could work with a funded marketing effort, but it didn’t move anything here.
How did Maine’s use of ranked-choice voting compare to other places? Ranked-choice opponents could find things to nitpick. For example, there were 132,250 Democratic voters in this year’s election, yet only 117,250 votes — or 88.7 percent — were in play during the final ranked-choice round between Mills and Cote.
But this demands context. This group of 15,000 includes nearly 5,700 who didn’t vote in the gubernatorial race. Just about everyone else — nearly 8,500 people — undervoted in a later ranked-choice voting round, meaning they didn’t rank enough candidates for their ballot to remain alive. In most cases, this is probably due to disaffection or lack of information.
One of the clearer errors in ranked-choice voting is overvoting, when voters rank more than one candidate in the same place. In the Democratic gubernatorial primary, 580 people overvoted at some point by the final round and 430 of them were in the first round.
When you take out people who never began the process, only 7.2 percent of ballots weren’t in play by the end. This may be higher than average. The average rate of spoiled ballots in five ranked-choice Australian elections between 1993 and 2007 archived by advocates of another voting method was 4 percent.
Maine’s old plurality system would likely have had less errors. But ranked-choice voting advocates will point to dropoff comparisons with regular runoff elections, where FairVote found a median turnout decline of 38 percent in congressional runoffs from 1994 to 2016.
You may like the new way; you may have liked the old way. But no matter what, ranked-choice voting has taught us a lot already, and we’ll be learning more about it as Maine moves ahead with it.
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