Maine Becomes the First State To Test Ranked-Choice Voting

Progressives vote for their favorite candidates without the fear of spoilers.

Julia Conley

Betsy Sweet (center), who’s running for governor of Maine, chats with voters May 12. The June primary will implement ranked-choice voting, which may aid progressives like Sweet. (Photo by Bob Crink)

DAMARISCOT­TA, MAINE — At a May 12 Demo­c­ra­t­ic guber­na­to­r­i­al forum host­ed by Indi­vis­i­ble, the crowd is treat­ed to a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the 1940s nov­el­ty song, I’m My Own Grand­pa.” The new lyrics relate a saga still raw for many Main­ers: how two Inde­pen­dents split the vote in 2010, let­ting racist Repub­li­can Paul LeP­age be elect­ed in the tra­di­tion­al­ly blue state with less than 38 per­cent of the vote. In 2014, it hap­pened again (with just one Inde­pen­dent this time).

“I am no longer hedging my bets. I am voting for the person that my values really resonate with. And voting for a second person who’s pretty close.”

The audi­ence joins the chorus:

We want RCV 

We want RCV 

It sounds fun­ny I know, but the peo­ple will show you,

We want RCV 

The tone is jubi­lant. RCV, or ranked-choice vot­ing, is a pro­ce­dur­al solu­tion to the prob­lem of vote-split­ting. After a three-year tus­sle between activists and leg­is­la­tors, Maine will become the first state to use RCV, in June. 

The can­di­date forum dou­bles as a les­son in RCV. On elec­tion day, vot­ers will rank up to sev­en favorite can­di­dates. If no can­di­date wins a major­i­ty, the one with the fewest first-choice votes is elim­i­nat­ed. Vot­ers who ranked that per­son their top pick will have their sec­ond choice count­ed. The process repeats, with last-place can­di­dates elim­i­nat­ed, until some­one gar­ners a majority. 

Under RCV, a vic­tor who is reviled by more than half of the vot­ers will be a thing of the past. And pro­gres­sives can express their sup­port for like­mind­ed can­di­dates with­out fear of vote-splitting. 

I’m very excit­ed,” says Lisa Miller, an attendee from Somerville who has sup­port­ed RCV in its long jour­ney to the pri­ma­ry bal­lot. I am no longer hedg­ing my bets. I am vot­ing for the per­son that my val­ues real­ly res­onate with. And vot­ing for a sec­ond per­son who’s pret­ty close.”

Miller is among the most­ly white, 50-and-over Main­ers who filed into the school gym­na­si­um in the pic­turesque town of Damariscot­ta to hear from the sev­en Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates in the race. For­mer state Rep. Diane Rus­sell (D) advo­cates mar­i­jua­na legal­iza­tion (“There’s a lot of jobs in that, by the way”), a new New Deal” for Maine, Medicare for All and a tax on the wealth­i­est Main­ers to sup­port chron­i­cal­ly under­fund­ed schools. For­mer state House Speak­er Mark Eves pro­pos­es uni­ver­sal health­care, renew­able ener­gy projects and tuition-free com­mu­ni­ty col­lege. Activist Bet­sy Sweet, who has refused spe­cial inter­est mon­ey, decries the polit­i­cal sway of groups like the NRA. 

Sweet also talks about the bat­tle for RCV. Fifty-two per­cent of Maine vot­ers backed a plan to imple­ment the sys­tem in 2016 (the sec­ond-largest ref­er­en­dum mar­gin in Maine’s his­to­ry). But law­mak­ers delayed the use of RCV until 2020 — and threat­ened to repeal it entire­ly if a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment wasn’t passed to make RCV official. 

In April, how­ev­er, a judge ordered that the June pri­ma­ry must use RCV. The pri­ma­ry will also include a ref­er­en­dum to invoke the state’s people’s veto” against the repeal and make RCV stan­dard prac­tice going forward.

How many of you worked on the ref­er­en­dums last fall?” Sweet asks the audi­ence, nod­ding as hands go up. We heard things in the hall­ways [of the leg­is­la­ture] like, The vot­ers didn’t under­stand what they were vot­ing for.’ Vot­ers are stu­pid. … I don’t think that’s true.”

Anoth­er can­di­date on the stage, Rus­sell, was instru­men­tal in get­ting RCV on the bal­lot again. Rus­sell and 1,800 vol­un­teers gath­ered more than 80,000 sig­na­tures from vot­ers to ini­ti­ate the people’s veto.” 

Those of us who have been fight­ing so hard and have been told we couldn’t do this — and every time we win, to be told we’re not allowed to do it,” Rus­sell tells the crowd, her voice shak­ing with emo­tion. I want to thank you from the bot­tom of my heart for fight­ing for RCV.”

Those were tears of anger and joy,” Rus­sell tells In These Times after the forum. Peo­ple are pissed … and the people’s veto gave them a place they could chan­nel that rage into some­thing super constructive.”

Pro­gres­sives like Rus­sell and Sweet hope that, with RCV, Main­ers can grad­u­al­ly replace law­mak­ers who ignore the will of the peo­ple with rep­re­sen­ta­tives who know their job is to serve their constituents.

Julia Con­ley is a Maine-based staff writer for Com­mon Dreams.
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