This election season pits two of the least popular candidates in our history against each another. Many voters think Donald Trump has a big mouth and don’t like the things that come out of it, and they think Hillary Clinton has a smart mouth and don’t like her smug sense of privilege. Millions of Americans would like to vote for someone theyactually like, but are afraid to do so for fear of helping to elect their least favorite candidate.
A ballot initiative in Maine shows one way to change all that. Called Question 5, it asks voters to change the state’s election rules—which award victory to whichever candidate gets the most votes—and adopt a new system called “ranked-choice voting” (RCV). With this method, voters would rank candidates for office in order of preference. Then ballots are counted in multiple rounds until someone emerges with a majority. The system allows voters to select their real first choice without the risk of helping elect a candidate they dread.
A number of cities in the United States already have ranked-choice voting, including Burlington, Vermont; Sarasota, Florida; and San Francisco. But if Question 5 passes, Maine will be the first state in the nation to adopt it—and the political ramifications could be enormous.
In September, the measure polled at 48 percent in favor with another 23 percent undecided, according to the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram poll.
One of the initiative’s leading promoters is progressive firebrand Diane Russell, a Democrat who represents a district of Portland, the state’s most populous city, in the Maine House of Representatives. She says ranked-choice voting, if implemented at a national level, would have changed the dynamics of the Democratic primaries this year.
“Sanders can’t run as an independent right now because he knows that it would be a vote for Trump,” Russell says. But with RCV, voters “would be able to vote for the person they want, and then vote for another person for second place to not get to the person that you don’t want.”
Not everyone is convinced. State Rep. Heather Sirocki, a Republican who represents the coastal town of Scarborough, is opposed to Question 5 for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most compelling is tradition. Maine’s current election rules have been in place for 136 years. They work, people understand them, and if something isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
Sirocki is right that ranked-choice voting would take some getting used to. In traditional elections, the candidate who receives the most votes almost always wins. With ranked-choice, there can be several rounds of vote counting, and a candidate must wind up with a majority of votes in the last round to win.
Suppose there are five candidates in a governor’s race. Voters can vote for just one candidate or pick all five, as long as they rank them in order of preference. All ballots are counted, and all the first choices on those ballots are awarded to the respective candidates. If there is no majority winner, then the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and their second-choice votes are awarded to the remaining four. The winner is determined by working from the bottom up until one candidate gets a majority. In this way, RCV eliminates the need for runoff elections. That’s why it’s also known as “instant runoff” voting.
According to FairVote, a nonpartisan group that advocates for electoral reform, candidates who are women or people of color tend to do better with this method, as opposed to a first-past-the-post system that yields a plurality winner, which, more often than not, is an older White male candidate.
Proponents of preferential voting say its primary purpose is to make sure every vote counts. They also say that voter apathy and low turnout are the inevitable results of the current system, which effectively disenfranchises most voters. They say RCV will reverse that trend.
Opponents like Heather Sirocki say the answer to voter apathy is to get more people to the polls, not to change the way their votes are cast and counted. She says RCV rigs elections by penalizing the highest-voted candidate. “The ballots of the loser get counted again, but the ballots of people who vote for others don’t,” she says. That’s true, but additional counts based on voters’ second or third choices help the first-round frontrunner get more votes, too.
The Maine League of Women Voters supports the measure because “it allows voters to vote for their favorite candidate without fear of helping elect their least favorite candidate,” as the group wrote in a statement. “It minimizes strategic voting and eliminates the spoiler effect.” The spoiler effect is the bane of independent or third-party candidates, who try to attract voters with their ideas but too often fail when voters wind up voting against the lesser of two evils, instead of for a candidate they actually like but who is unlikely to win.
Former Sen. Dick Woodbury, an independent who helped draft the ballot measure, says candidates can’t spoil a ranked-choice election by taking votes away from somebody else. “If a candidate turns out not to be electable, then he or she is eliminated in the counting process,” says Woodbury.
Sirocki doesn’t buy that logic. “When they tell you RCV guarantees a majority or that it eliminates strategic voting, that’s a lie,” she says. “Candidates will be nice and careful about declaring their positions on issues because they want to be liked. They will try to get a second-place position and then pull off a win in the final round.” In other words, Sirocki thinks RCV will draw mealy-mouthed, milquetoast candidates who don’t say what they mean and don’t mean what they say. But for the majority of the electorate, who dislike both Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, that may be like the pot calling the kettle black.
Critics also cite a 2010 California election as an example of what’s wrong with ranked-choice voting.
San Francisco adopted RCV in 2002, and its elections are officially nonpartisan, so candidates’ names don’t have a party listed next to them on the ballot. In 2010, that set up a situation where 21 candidates ran for supervisor of District 10. No candidate got more than 12 percent of the vote in the initial tally, and Malia Cohen, who had placed third in the first round, was the eventual winner after 20 rounds of counting.
Sirocki says Cohen was elected even though 70 percent of voters didn’t vote for her. That’s true. But they didn’t vote for any other candidate by that percentage either.
Since 2000, more than 100 elections have been held in the U.S. using ranked-choice voting, and nine times out of 10 the highest-voted candidate in the initial tally went on to win. The San Francisco election was unusual because of the large number of candidates in a nonpartisan race and because none of them got anywhere near a plurality in the first tally.
Whatever one thinks of the results of that election, the path to enacting Question 5 will be complicated, even if it passes. Opponents of the initiative point out that ranked-choice voting would require changes to the state constitution, which currently calls for plurality voting.
What’s more, about half of the state’s jurisdictions use paper ballots counted by hand, while the other half uses digital voting machines that would have to be be reprogrammed to sort and count in multiple rounds. Assistant Secretary of State July Flynn says the only feasible way to count both types of ballots using a ranked-choice system would be to get state troopers to drive the electronic scans and copies of paper ballots to one location so the results can be tabulated.
“It’s a difficult thing to do,” she said.
Kyle Bailey is a 30-something political organizer who lives in Maine but is originally from Georgia. He says Mainers are very common-sense people, and he’s come to love the snow they get in winter. Bailey has spent much of the past two years crisscrossing the state to educate voters about ranked-choice voting.
“Our real focus has been trying to talk to voters, speaking to rotary clubs and chambers of commerce, speaking to labor unions, Kiwanis clubs, and Lions clubs, you name it,” says Bailey.
He estimates that he’s probably organized 400 meetings around the state. He talked by phone about the two-year campaign he has run with three full-time staffers and two part-timers, as he drove to a house meeting in the town of Norway, 50 miles northwest of Portland.
“There were some difficult conversations early on. But people who weren’t supportive at first have come around after learning about it,” he says. One of them was Mark Ellis, the former chair of Maine’s Republican Party, who is now a strong supporter.
“This is not about helping Democrats, Republicans, independents, or third parties,” Bailey says. “It’s about making our democracy work better. And that’s the kind of conversations I’ve had with people.”
That strategy appears to be working. The Yes on 5 in Maine campaign has gathered 450 endorsements so far, and the list reads like a Who’s Who of Maine. Our Revolution, the spinoff of the Sanders campaign that is working to elect progressives in state and local elections, has also endorsed Question 5. There is no organized opposition to the ballot measure.
“No other campaign has that depth and breadth of endorsements,” Bailey says.
Adam Pontius, 26, is a born and bred Mainer running for a seat in Portland’s 27th Senate District. It is the first time he has run for political office. He is also an organizer for the Yes on 5 in Maine campaign, and his job is gathering endorsements for the measure. Pontius, his wife, and a colleague drove along Maine’s rocky coast one Sunday in August to attend a barbecue sponsored by Maine’s Libertarian Party, which had just gotten several candidates on the ballot.
As a mainstream Republican, Pontius believes in limited government, lower taxes, individual freedom, and private enterprise. He says nothing in the ballot measure conflicts with those political beliefs. Pontius was a delegate to Maine’s Republican Party convention.
“I think there is a perception that ranked-choice voting is somehow a liberal or progressive issue, and my experience at the Republican Convention was that people were perfectly willing to listen,” he said.
Griffin Johnson, 29, grew up in Houlton, a border town in northern Maine. He is a Libertarian and works with Pontius, doing community events to educate and gather support for ranked-choice voting.
In June, Johnson attended a barn party in Starks, a small town in the rolling hills of Maine’s interior. About two dozen people sat on hay bales inside a big white barn while he gave a presentation, followed by a question-and-answer session. What really captured peoples’ interest was the salsa recipe competition, which used ranked-choice voting to determine the winner. It’s something he’s done a few times to help people understand how preferential voting works.
“Usually the hot ones don’t win,” Johnson said. He said Mainers seem to like either mild or smoky-flavored salsa best. Who knew?
Liz Smith, 36, grew up in the Bay Area, worked at NASA for four years making scientific films, and then spent eight years at sea doing ocean conservation research. Now Smith runs The Conservation Media Group, a startup nonprofit based in the town of Camden, on Maine’s rocky coast. She, too, supports Question 5.
“I’m completely new to politics,” she says. Smith was a Sanders delegate to Maine’s Democratic state convention as well as the national one in Philadelphia.
“It was really difficult to sit in the same room with so much dissension and disagreement among what I consider the good folks … and I broke down in tears a couple of times,” she recalled.
Smith says the convention was an emotional roller coaster ride. “I held out hope to the very end,” she said. “The first two days of the convention felt like we sort of got steamrolled and not heard.”
At that point, Smith said, the Sanders camp divided into three groups. “Third-degree burners are folks who are like ‘Screw this, I’m going somewhere else.’ And first-degree Berners are folks who love Bernie, but they are fine with Hillary Clinton, too.” Smith felt the Bern to the second degree: walking out of the convention but not the party. She left the building after the roll call vote on Tuesday morning with hundreds of other Bernie delegates.
Smith returned to Maine dejected but determined.
She is now helping progressives get elected in Maine. There are some 800 Bernie delegates in the state, and they have a Facebook page where a lot of litmus-testing is going on about current races. “People want to know if they supported our guy, and if they did, then they will vote for him or her, regardless of party,” Smith notes.
Smith says she’s putting together a “Berner’s Guide to Voting in Maine” for the November election, and it won’t push party politics as much as certain issues and candidates. Ranked-choice voting will be among them.