In Maine, a voting experiment could have real consequences for partisan politics

Maine’s State House last fall
Maine’s State House last fall

Maine voters this week got the legal go-ahead to try a novel, first-in-the-nation statewide ballot experiment that advocates say could curb growing levels of extreme partisanship. The problem? Voters have only two months to learn how to use the complex new system before primary day.

The initiative, known as ranked-choice voting, allows voters to rank up to three candidates, in order of preference, when marking their ballots (imagine marking the first choice with a 1, second choice with a 2, and so on). If no candidate receives 50 percent of first-choice votes, then the bottom candidate is eliminated, with their votes reallocated to the second choice. At that point, if no candidate gets 50 percent, the process repeats until a candidate receives a majority.

The idea is to make sure that the winner is generally the consensus pick and not someone who received, say, 35 percent of the vote. That minimizes the glaring partisanship that has marked hundreds of races in recent years.

Many local communities from Cambridge here in Massachusetts to St. Paul, Minn., to Santa Fe, N.M., have used ranked-choice voting in local elections, but no state had ever adopted it for use in both statewide elections and for Congress, until this week’s court decision.

Portland, Maine’s largest city, has used ranked-choice voting in their past two municipal elections, but the Maine Legislature has largely dismissed initiatives because of constitutional questions. However, in 2016 the idea was put up to voters in a statewide referendum, and it passed. Since then the issue was tangled in the court system — even the Maine Supreme Court issued a nonbinding opinion saying the new law was at least partially unconstitutional. That’s because Maine’s Constitution explicitly states that a candidate only needs a plurality of votes (meaning more than any other candidate), and not a majority of votes, to win an election.

On Wednesday, a Kennebec County Superior Court judge ordered Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to reconfigure primary ballots to use the ranked-choice system. Dunlap, a Democrat, had raised new legal questions about his ability to implement it in recent weeks.

Now that ranked choice is a go in Maine, the complications begin. As even the judge wrote in her order this week “uncertainty that halting the ranked-choice voting implementation…

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