State of Elections

William & Mary Law School | Election Law Society

Ranked Choice Voting in Maine

By: Emily Wagman

On October 19, 2015, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting delivered 70,000 signatures to Maine’s Secretary of State. While the signatures still must be verified, it is likely that the proposal will make it onto the 2016 ballot. Ranked choice voting is also referred to as instant runoff voting, which allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference. If a voter’s first choice does not win, the voter’s vote moves to his/her second choice candidate. The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting has support from all sides of the political spectrum. Voters in Maine are especially concerned with the idea of majority rule since the current Governor, Paul LePage, won his first term with only 38% of the vote, which is not exactly a ringing majority endorsement. Moreover, voters are also concerned with the issue of spoiler candidates. The most recent gubernatorial election saw a three-way race between LePage (R), Mike Michaud (D), and Eliot Cutler (I). The results of that election show that Cutler was a spoiler candidate – LePage received 48.2% of the vote, Michaud received 43.4% of the vote, and Cutler received 8.4% of the vote. Had the votes Cutler received gone to Michaud, LePage would have been unseated.

According to the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting’s website, none of Maine’s governors were elected to their first terms by a majority of voters over the past 40 years. Moreover, 9 of the most recent 11 gubernatorial races saw candidates elected by fewer than half of voters, and in 5 of those 9 candidates were actually elected by fewer than 40% of voters. This is common in Maine since more than two candidates often run. With this background in mind, it is unsurprising that the idea of ranked choice voting has been proposed in Maine before 2014. Ranked choice voting was introduced in the Maine Legislature multiple times when Angus King (I) and John Baldacci (D) served as governor, and the League of Women Voters began researching how to fix the problem of the lack of a majority consensus in gubernatorial races in the state. The League came to the idea of ranked choice voting in 2011 and decided to look into a ballot initiative in 2013. Maine voters then formed the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting in October 2014, and were likely spurred into action by the gubernatorial race the following month that highlighted exactly why ranked choice voting might be a good idea.

Interestingly, ranked choice voting actually already occurs in Maine. Prior to 2010, the Portland City Council elected the mayor of Portland from among the existing City Council members for a one-year term. After the election rules changed in 2010, Portland’s first popular mayoral election in almost 90 years resulted in Michael Brennan winning the 2011 off-year election. Given that this was the first popular election in decades, it was unsurprising that 15 candidates ran for the mayoral seat. Brennan became the mayor after receiving over 55% of the vote, after 13 of the 15 candidates were eliminated. Further, the mayoral race saw 40% turnout, which is quite high for a local, off-year election. Brennan’s 55+% stands in stark contrast to LePage’s 38%, and even LePage’s 48% in the two most recent gubernatorial races. That, coupled with the high turnout, suggests that ranked choice voting might be a very good change for the state of Maine.

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  1. Ranked choice voting is also used in several other cities across the country as a means to empower voters and foster better elections, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Oakland. University studies show it encourages candidates to run more positive campaigns, focus on the issues, and reach out beyond their base. Seems like a simple but effective remedy for Maine elections.

  2. Great article! The people in Maine deserve to have a governor that an actual majority of them support. Ranked choice voting is a simple fix to a big problem.

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