By: Eric Reid
In 2016, voters in Maine decided to become the first state in the nation to adopt a ranked-choice voting system for state and federal elections.
Most voting systems in the United States are what is called “First Past the Post” system or the “Winner Takes All” system. In this system, the candidate who receives the most votes or a plurality wins the election. Maine’s new system, also known as “instant runoff”, only applies in races with three or more candidates. At the ballot box, a voter would rank candidates from most-favored to least-favored according to his or her preference. If a candidate got a majority of first-placed votes, then that candidate wins. If, however, no candidate received a majority of first-placed votes, then the least-ranked candidate is dropped and the process begins again. Those voters who picked the dropped candidate would then have their votes reallocated, and the process would cycle until a candidate finally won. For example, in an election with ten candidates, a voter would rank each candidate once from one to ten. The candidate that had the most negative votes would be removed, and the votes reallocated to reflect the dropped candidate. A candidate is dropped in each cycle until a candidate finally receives a majority of votes.
The change in the system comes from voter dissatisfaction from election results over the past twenty years. Maine enjoys strong third-party candidates that have been able to win the election despite not receiving a majority by splitting the Democratic and Republican votes. According to Henry Grabar, “[n]ine out of the past 11 governors have been elected with less than 50 percent of the vote. Five won with less than 40 percent.” Governor Paul LePage won his gubernatorial race in 2010 with only 38 percent of the vote, and did not receive a majority in his 2014 re-election.
Governor LePage’s plurality win in 2010 and 2014 in particular seemed have to spurred Mainers into changing their voting system. In 2010, Independent candidate Eliot Cutler, claimed that he would likely have beaten LePage if the state had a ranked-voting system. The 2010 elections led many liberals in Maine to put a “61%” bumper sticker on their car in protest, referencing the percentage of votes LePage did not receive in that election.
However in May of 2017, after being asked by Republicans unhappy with the new system, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued an unanimous advisory ruling that said the system violated the state’s constitution. The Court’s ruling turned on the word “majority.” The Court stated that the new law violated the state’s constitution because the Constitution only required that a candidate receive a plurality.
Because the decision was an advisory ruling, it is not a matter of law. It is still significant, however, because Maine is the only state in the nation to have adopted this system, and other states are watching very closely.
The state now faces a tricky situation. It can repeal the new system and go back to the old one, amend the constitution to make candidates receive a majority, or it can do nothing. If the state does nothing, then the ranked-voting system will in use in the 2018 election cycle. The Court warned that candidates who won under this system would be vulnerable to constitutional challenges, which could lead to invalidated elections and end in chaos.
In an unusual move, the Legislature voted to delay the execution of the bill so long as the Legislature can amend it by December 2021. However, if the Legislature fails to amend the bill, then the law will be fully repealed. Proponents of the new system have a hard road ahead, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out in the end.