In November, Maine voters will decide whether they want to become the first state in the U.S. to implement ranked-choice voting. If a ballot initiative is approved, future Maine voters in primaries and general elections will be allowed to rank their choices for governor, Congress and statehouse races instead of voting for just one. If no one gets a majority in a race, the candidate who came in last is eliminated and the second choices of their voters are redistributed, in much the same way that a runoff election works. That process continues through multiple rounds until a single candidate reaches a majority.
The state has long struggled with elections that end without a clear mandate from the voters. In nine of the past 11 races for governor, the winner has received less than a majority, including as low as 35%. (The two exceptions, in 1982 and 1998, involved popular governors running for re-election.) Current Gov. Paul LePage, who won 38% in a four-way race in 2010 and was re-elected with 48% in a three-way race in 2014, remains one of the most unpopular governors in the country.
Kyle Bailey, an independent consultant running the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting behind the initiative, says most voters he’s talked to quickly grasp the concept once he’s had a chance to explain it.
“We make ranked choices every day of our lives, we just don’t necessarily think about it,” he said, before settling on an analogy that seems appropriate in the Northeast. “When I go to Dunkin Donuts, I get a multigrain bagel. I know that if they don’t have any, then my second choice is a garlic bagel.”
FairVote, an advocacy group that promotes ranked-choice voting nationwide, used polls to model how Trump might have fared if some Republican primaries had been held under that system. If their model is accurate, Trump would have had a reversal of fortune on his big sweep on Super Tuesday, losing seven of 11 states instead of winning that number.
Reformers began to experiment with ranked-choice voting in races for mayor and city council in liberal-leaning cities like Portland, Maine; Takoma Park, Maryland; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota; and San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro in California. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences even adopted it when it expanded the Best Picture nomination pool for the Oscars in 2009.
David Kimball, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, studied cities with ranked-choice voting and traditional ballots for a paper to be published later this year.
“We found that turnout in ranked-choice voting cities was nine or 10 percentage points higher than comparable cities in a primary or runoff election,” he said.