AUGUSTA, Maine — The Democratic-led Maine Legislature made what could be a sweeping change on Monday, passing a bill that would extend the state’s first-in-the-nation ranked-choice voting law to presidential primaries and general elections.
There are still hurdles to clear before we can gauge its effect on the 2020 election, including a decision from Gov. Janet Mills and formal procedural steps by the two major state and national political parties. Here are the answers to some basic questions on the possible shift.
What happened? The Maine Senate passed a bill from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, that would extend ranked-choice voting to presidential elections. Now, the method is only used in congressional elections and primaries for state offices.
Advocates of ranked-choice voting — enshrined in a 2016 referendum and upheld by Maine voters in last year’s election — eyed it as the easiest way to get an expansion of the voting method in 2019, since it required only a simple law change and not a constitutional amendment.
Is it a done deal? No. Mills, a Democrat, is generally supportive of ranked-choice voting and said after being elected in 2018 that she would support a constitutional amendment to extend it to general elections for governor and the Legislature. That is opposed by Republicans.
But Mills also wanted to limit Monday’s votes to bond proposals and Jackson said she did not want his measure to move forward in an interview. A Mills spokeswoman said Tuesday she is “carefully reviewing” the bill. The governor now has 10 days to sign, veto or decide to hold the bill. It would go into effect in time for the March 3 primaries if she signs it.
It could die in other scenarios. If Mills vetoed the bill, lawmakers could hold a vote on overriding that veto in January, but it would likely fail because two-thirds majorities in both chambers would be needed and legislative Republicans oppose the voting method. Mills could also hold it until January and keep it from going into effect by March.
Would both parties have to use it in 2020? Democrats would, Republicans may not.
The Legislature made another change in 2019 allowing parties to switch from party-run presidential caucuses to state-run primaries that haven’t been used in Maine since 2000, but that switch is optional for the parties.
The Maine Democratic Party has said it will use a primary in 2020. The Maine Republican Party will decide between a caucus or primary in September, said Jason Savage, the party’s executive director. If it stays with a caucus, it wouldn’t be bound by the method.
The two parties are in two different places approaching the 2020 election. Democrats have a field of more than 20 well-known candidates running for the nomination to take on President Donald Trump, a Republican who is not expected to have serious competition for the nomination.
How would a ranked-choice Democratic primary work? It would be different than past ranked-choice voting elections.
Those past elections — including the 2018 race in the 2nd Congressional District — have been races to 50 percent. Voters choose candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate gets a majority of first-place votes, the last-place finisher is eliminated and voters’ second choices are redistributed. The process continues until someone has more than 50 percent.
Democrats and Republicans have had different ways of picking delegates. In 2016, they both had proportional systems except for a Republican caveat that a candidate who won a majority would have gotten all of Maine’s delegates to the national convention.
Six other states have plans to use ranked-choice voting to some degree in the 2020 Democratic nominating elections, according to FairVote, an electoral reform group, but the rules committee of the Democratic National Committee has not taken a formal position on the method and it will have to approve state delegate plans that include it.
In 2020, Democrats will again require presidential candidates to get 15 percent of votes or more to qualify for any delegates. FairVote has said the national committee will likely allow the ranked-choice voting process to be adapted to focus on that threshold by state.
If a voter’s first-choice candidate has 15 percent of votes or more, their vote will remain with that candidate. But if their first choice is in last place and below the threshold, their vote will move to a second choice. That would continue until all remaining candidates are at or above 15 percent.
How would it change the general election? Ranked-choice voting would be more straightforward in November 2020. Maine is one of two states to allocate Electoral College votes by congressional district. The statewide winner gets two, and the winner in each district gets one.
So Maine would simply run three ranked-choice races at once — one statewide, one in the liberal 1st Congressional District and one in the more conservative 2nd District. In all of them, the winner would have to exceed the 50 percent threshold by the end.
Watch: Matt Dunlap answers questions about ranked-choice voting