The Maine Event

Harout Manougian is a former RaBIT Board Member, currently studying at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In 2012, he was elected as a Trustee to the Toronto District School Board with 18.9% of the total vote. You can follow him on Twitter: @HaroutManougian.

On June 12th, 2018, citizens of the US state of Maine will be the first to use ranked ballots for a major statewide election in US history when they vote in the Democratic and Republican primary elections to select each party’s candidate for the gubernatorial election in November. Simultaneously, Mainers will be asked to vote in a referendum on whether they want to keep the ranked ballot system – despite having already made this decision in another referendum held only two years earlier. Indeed, the continued resistance by those currently in power to eliminating the “spoiler effect” has put the journey towards ranked ballots in Maine through many twists and turns. June 12th will be a pivotal day in that journey.

Frustrated By Spoilers

The story of the fight for ranked ballots in Maine is a long one, with various Democrats, Republicans and Independents all advocating for ranked ballots at various time in the past few decades. But the current episode in the story really begins in 2010 with the race for a new governor. An open race resulted in three Independent candidates joining the Democratic and Republican nominees on the campaign trail. In the end, Republican Paul LePage won the election with 37.6% of the vote, while Independent Eliot Cutler came a close second, collecting 35.9%. It was a classic case of a first-past-the-post system failing to provide a strong majority mandate. Because his policies aligned more with those of the Democratic nominee, who placed third in the race, most observers suggested that Cutler would have beat LePage had there been a runoff or if the Democratic candidate had dropped out.

Many Mainers felt that their first-past-the-post system had let them down and, over the next four years, multiple attempts to adopt ranked ballots (most commonly referred to in the US as Ranked Choice Voting or RCV) were launched in the state legislature, but did not pass. Nevertheless, Portland, Maine’s largest city, did start using ranked ballots for its mayoral elections in 2011.

In 2014, two state legislators, Democratic Representative Diane Russell and Independent Senator Richard Woodbury, launched a ballot initiative to bring the issue of ranked ballots to a statewide referendum. To get their question on the ballot, they needed to collect signatures on a petition from 10% of the total number of voters in the most recent gubernatorial election, or just under 62,000.

Maine Gubernatorial Election Results

2010

 

2014

Candidate

Party

Votes

 

Candidate

Party

Votes

Paul LePage

Republican

218,065

 

Paul LePage

Republican

294,519

Eliot Cutler

Independent

208,270

 

Mike Michaud

Democratic

265,114

Elizabeth Mitchell

Democratic

109,387

 

Eliot Cutler

Independent

51,515

Shawn Moody

Independent

28,756

 

 

 

 

Kevin Scott

Independent

5,664

 

 

 

 

 

At the same time, another race for governor – one in which Cutler would switch roles and play the spoiler for Democrat Mike Michaud – was underway. On the day of the election, ranked ballot supporters took advantage of occasion and deployed to voting locations around the state to collect signatures supporting their ballot initiative. On that day alone, they collected over 36,000 signatures for their petition – more than half of what they needed to force a referendum. In the following months, they easily exceeded the 62,000 threshold and the stage was set for a referendum in 2016.

A Short-Lived Victory

On November 8th, 2016, the day of the presidential election, the Maine Ranked Choice Voting Initiative, also known as “Question 5”, passed with 52% support. It seemed that the issue was settled and that RCV would be used in state elections for the offices of Governor, State Representative, State Senator, US House Representative, and US Senator. This was a big win because, while ranked ballots were being used in a growing number of municipalities for city council elections, this would be their first use in a statewide race (that is, if you don’t count one judge who was elected using ranked ballots in North Carolina in 2010).

Alas, politicians from both the main parties saw this potential change as a threat to their carefully guarded advantages. On February 2nd, 2017, three months after the passage of the referendum, the Maine state senate asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to provide an advisory opinion on the constitutionality of Question 5.

At issue in this case was a fairly unusual clause in the Maine state constitution that used the specific term “plurality” when describing how the governor, state representatives, and state senators were to be elected. Despite strong arguments to the contrary, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court eventually found that the use of ranked ballots could be inconsistent with the state constitution for these three offices. At the same time, it also concluded that there was no constitutional obstacle to using ranked ballots for the federal offices of US Congressman and US Senator for Maine. In addition, there was no constitutional obstacle to using ranked ballots for primary elections, even for state offices.

The state legislature was now faced with a decision. A few advocated taking the necessary steps to amend the constitution so as to respect the referendum result. The majority of elected officials, however, had other plans.

Within days of the court decision, a bill was introduced to repeal ranked choice voting in its entirety (even for federal and primary races, for which no constitutional obstacle existed). Citizens rallied in front of the state house and initiated a phone-in campaign to pressure their representatives not to repeal the ranked choice voting law. The repeal bill did not succeed but neither did another one which would have amended the constitution to bring ranked choice voting into constitutional compliance.

Seeing that disregarding the referendum result so abruptly was too obvious a tactic, opponents tried another approach. In October 2017, a new bill was passed that delayed ranked choice voting for all elections pending a constitutional amendment - even for federal and primary races for which there was no reason to delay. It also added that the referendum result would be repealed in its entirety if the constitution was not changed by 2021. The resurrection of the repeal attempt was a surprise and, for a brief moment, it seemed that the people’s referendum victory had been snatched away.

A New Hope

As could be expected, ranked ballot supporters were infuriated. Quickly, they decided to use a rare procedure called the “People’s Veto”. In addition to referenda, Maine’s constitution also allows citizens to use a People’s Veto to block legislation passed by their representatives. To activate the veto, supporters would again need to submit a petition signed by a number of citizens equal to 10% of the popular vote in the most recent gubernatorial election. It was a process familiar to ranked ballot supporters who were given 90 days to collect another 62,000 signatures. If successful, the People’s Veto would block the bill repealing the results of the first referendum pending the outcome of a second referendum on ranked ballots.

The new petition campaign was approved one day before the November 7th, 2017 state house election. Again, RCV supporters stood outside voting locations and collected half of the required signatures in a single day. Once again campaigners worked spent the following weeks collecting the balance of the required signatures and the People’s Veto succeeded. There would be another referendum, this time on June 12th, 2018, when Mainers will get to vote on whether to repeal the legislature’s cancellation of ranked ballots.

June 12th is also the day of the the primary elections for Maine Governor. Because the People’s Veto was successful, both the Republican and Democratic parties will be using ranked ballots to decide their nominee. Whatever the result of the referendum happening at the same time, this primary vote – the first in the US to ever use ranked ballots – will mark an important victory for a dedicated group of grassroots campaigners who took on the political establishment and won – at least for now.

Whatever the referendum’s outcome, you can be sure June 12th will not be the last battle in the struggle for ranked ballots. It will, however, mark a major milestone and could be an important catalyst for change in many more states. We’ll be watching.