Researchers and election officials around the country are watching Maine as it implements ranked-choice voting (RCV) as an electoral reform. Ranked-choice voting is gaining popularity in American elections — currently, 12 U.S. cities use RCV in local elections. Voters approved ballot measures in 2016 and 2018 that made Maine the first state in the U.S. to adopt RCV for some federal and statewide elections. Maine will be extending RCV even further by using it in the 2020 presidential election.
This is a key moment to assess the impacts of this reform on voters and election administration practices. Maine has a history of partisan division in voters’ support for RCV. A recent study that I co-authored with three other scholars ( Amy Fried, Robert Glover and David Kimball) found that local election officials are also divided along party lines in their support of the new system.
A polarizing figure, Gov. Paul LePage was not elected by a majority of Mainers in 2010, and this outcome incentivized supporters of RCV to organize and push for its adoption with urgency. Given the history of RCV reform efforts in Maine, it is understandable that support for RCV has been starkly divided along partisan lines.
Studies have shown that while a majority of voters supported the transition to RCV elections through two separate ballot measures, party identification fractured this support; roughly 80 percent of Democrats in Maine support RCV while 80 percent of Republicans oppose RCV. The more favorable voters were to Donald Trump, the less favorable they were toward the 2016 ballot measure that adopted RCV in Maine.
There are 482 local election officials in the state of Maine, and these individuals are critical to implementing RCV within their jurisdictions. Like voters, local election officials who responded to our survey are also starkly divided along party lines. When asked if they supported “the goals of RCV,” Democratic election officials were far more favorable than Republican or unenrolled officials. When asked if they wanted to see RCV used in future elections, none of the Republican local election officials in our sample answered yes, while most of the Democratic election officials responded in the affirmative.
Interestingly, neither Republican nor Democratic officials thought that RCV improved the elections process. On average, Democratic election officials indicated a neutral stance, neither agreeing or disagreeing with the statement that RCV “improves the elections process.” Republican officials strongly disagreed with the statement that RCV improves elections. Regardless of partisan affiliations, implementation of the RCV system seems to have rolled out smoothly in the state of Maine.
Local election authorities do not disagree on everything. For instance, there was consensus among election officials across all party affiliations that the shift to RCV had little to no impact on their overall costs of running elections. Regardless of their party affiliation, local officials also gave the Secretary of State’s Office high marks in its voter outreach efforts; 98 percent of local election officials who were surveyed said that the Secretary of State’s office was “somewhat or very helpful” in educating voters about RCV.
Therefore, while opinions of local election officials toward RCV differ in some important ways around the goals and effectiveness of RCV, it appears that they share some common goals with each other and with the Secretary of State in the importance of voter education and the successful implementation of the new law.
Some studies of RCV elections find that as voters become more accustomed to RCV elections, they also become more favorable toward this system. Election authorities overall are currently tepid at best in their support of RCV. But it’s possible that with time, local election officials will also grow more used to RCV elections and perhaps will become more favorable towards this system as well.
Given the history of partisan divisions around RCV in Maine, however, this outcome is not guaranteed. What is clear is that RCV as an election reform is only increasing in popularity in American elections, and many will be watching to see how Maine’s experiences with this system can inform the rest of the country.
Joseph Anthony is a visiting assistant professor in political science at Oklahoma State University. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of his institution. He is a member of the Oklahoma chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. SSN members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.