November 22, 2019
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How Maine is handling its first general election with ranked-choice voting

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Voters wait to cast their ballots in the midterm election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Lewiston.

Save for the occasional ballot glitch or moment of confusion, election officials throughout Maine were reporting a smooth deployment of ranked-choice voting late Tuesday afternoon.

Many clerks across the state in the days leading up to the election noted some voter confusion about distinguishing between the dueling voting methods on this year’s ballots. Only in this election’s congressional races did Mainers have the option to use the new voting method, which gives each voter the option to rank their choice of candidates from most preferred to least preferred, though they can opt out and just select one.

All other races – including the closely watched race to succeed Republican Gov. Paul LePage — are plurality races, which means voters have to cast their ballots the old-fashioned way, by just selecting one candidate. In plurality voting, the person with the most votes wins. In ranked-choice voting, if no candidate receives 50 percent of all ballots cast plus one, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and ballots are retabulated, with the second choices of voters who chose that person reallocated to other candidates.

Some voters were tripped up by the two different voting methods printed on either side of the same ballot, deputy warden Cathy Lemin said Tuesday afternoon at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

“They get to going on one side, and then they flip it over and stay in the same mode. It’s confusing,” she said.

Election clerks in Bangor have been dealing with more mistakes than a typical election brings, Lemin said, pointing to an envelope full of about 100 ballots discarded by voters who made errors because of ranked-choice.

This is one of the reasons why the state “didn’t want to put the ranked-choice races on the same side as the plurality races, to break up that confusion,” Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Tuesday afternoon.

Dunlap, who was traveling around to different polling locations across Maine on Tuesday, said he heard a few stories about voters confusing which races were ranked choice, but nothing that wasn’t easily remedied by starting over on a new ballot.

In Blue Hill, Town Clerk Etta Perkins said she was worried that the need for new ballots would blow through her supply before the polls closed, plus her pile of absentee ballots. She said she would have to call state officials for permission to use the absentees.

Perkins said she wished that a loud, grating bell would ring every time a voter erred with the new ballots to jolt voters’ minds into a higher gear.

“We have had so many ballots marked in wrong,” Perkins said. “They’re not paying attention to the instructions, and they’re right there in each of the voting places.”

Other clerks across Maine noted long lines and delays at their polling place.

In Bar Harbor, Town Clerk Sharon Linscott said voters were stuck in longer lines waiting to cast their ranked-choice ballots in a separate machine from the rest. To expedite that same process in Bangor, election workers gave voters the option of dropping their ballots in a wooden box to be processed by clerks at the end of the night. It will take longer to tally the results, but it helps the lines move faster, Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin said.

Dunlap said he expected voter turnout in Maine to hover around 65 percent — about 15 points higher than is normal for a midterm, he said. Whether voters favor ranked-choice voting is still up for debate.

Perkins blamed high voter turnout, driven primarily by interest in the governor’s race and the more antagonistic national political scene, for driving what was easily the biggest voter turnout she had seen in Blue Hill since becoming town clerk to the Hancock County town in 2003.

“I think people are tired of the way things are going,” Perkins said. “I think they’re also tired of me saying, ‘If you don’t like how things are, don’t complaint to me about it — vote.’”

Bangor resident Ann Verrill appreciated having the option. “I like being able to make two choices. In case my first doesn’t make it, hopefully the second one will.”

But Jean Beale, also of Bangor, doesn’t want to settle for second-choice candidate. “I didn’t do it, I don’t like it. I know who I want, and I don’t like second best.”

BDN writer Nick Sambides Jr. contributed to this report.

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