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Voters will rank candidates in Maine’s June primary

As states around the country run primaries ahead of midterm elections, Maine will be the first to use a ranked-choice system where voters rate candidates instead of voting for their favorite. This structure ensures that winners collect the majority of votes, not just the plurality, in a state that often nominates governors who don’t. But as Hari Sreenivasan reports, there are still some hurdles.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    On a recent spring Saturday in a small Maine town west of Bangor, Republicans gathered in a local school gym for a gubernatorial debate. And there was one issue on which all agreed.

  • MARY MAYHEW:

    It’s a scam, it undermines the integrity of our election process.

  • GARRETT MASON:

    It was put forward by a group of people who wanted to make sure that a conservative governor never got elected again.

  • KEN FREDETTE:

    So the reality is we are not happy with it.

  • LAUREN LEPAGE:

    Blatantly opposed to it, very unconstitutional.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The issue that united them is how the winner in their election will be chosen. Instead of voters just picking their favorite candidate in Maine’s primaries on June 12th, they will be listing their choices in order from favorite to least favorite. And the votes will be tallied using a new system. It’s called ranked-choice voting.

    Here’s how it works. Let’s say there are four candidates. Voters fill out their ballots indicating their preference for first, second, third and fourth. The results are then counted. If any candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first place votes – a majority – he or she is the outright winner.

    But in a scenario where no one gets 50 percent, the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated. Now three are left.

    If your first place choice is now gone, your second choice moves up on your ballot and becomes your first. Your third moves to second, and your fourth moves to third.

    The votes are recounted, and if there still is no candidate with more than 50 percent of the first place votes, the process continues. The person with the least first place votes is again eliminated. Now two are left.

    The votes are counted a final time. The candidate with the most votes will certainly have more than 50 percent. That person wins.

    Also known as ‘instant run-off,’ the system has been used countries like Australia and Ireland, as well as in municipal elections in u-s, cities including San Francisco and Portland — right here in Maine.

    But no American state has ever used ranked-choice voting in a statewide primary, until now.

    Dick Woodbury served as an independent state legislator for 10 years. He says ranked-choice voting is key to improving the political system for everyone.

  • DICK WOODBURY:

    I’m hopeful that it’ll be transformative to politics in Maine, but also a model for the country.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Bills to use ranked choice had been introduced in Maine’s legislature for more than a decade, but hadn’t passed. So Woodbury and Cara McCormick, a political consultant who has worked for Democrats and Independents, helped organize an effort to get it on the ballot for voters to decide in 2016. They thought it made sense in a state where many elections include more choices than just one democrat and one republican, and candidates have often won without getting even 50 percent of the votes.

  • DICK WOODBURY:

    Nine of our last 11 governor’s races were won by less than a majority.

  • CARA MCCORMICK:

    We have so many independents that run in and are competitive in our politics. And yet we have a system that forces us to choose, just to make just one choice.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, has been elected twice while never receiving a majority of the votes. In 2010, he won a five-way race, with less than 38 percent. In a three-person race in 2014, he was re-elected with 48 percent.

    Advocates say ranking candidates gives voters confidence that choosing a long-shot candidate won’t lead to so-called ‘wasted votes.’ That’s because voter’s second and third choices will be counted if their first choice is eliminated. And no one can be elected without winning a majority.

    Woodbury says it changes the way candidates engage in politics. They can’t afford to alienate voters who, say, might pick them as second choice.

  • DICK WOODBURY:

    You’ve got to reach out more broadly to the populous and you can’t be too negative to people who are your opponents. It nudges politics toward more centrism where you’re appealing to a broader number of people. And you move that into the policymaking arena I think you’ve got people who can work together better in a less partisan divisive gridlocked way so that we have potential to really improve policy-making at the same time that we’re improving politics.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Changing the way that votes are tabulated requires a major administrative effort for the people charged with running elections in Maine. Matthew Dunlap is Maine’s Secretary of State.

  • MATTHEW DUNLAP:

    You know, when we talk about, you know, massive changes to election law typically it’s replacing a period with a comma. So this is very, very new.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Dunlap has released sample ballots, is participating in town hall events around the state, and even published an animated video to help educate voters on the new system.

  • EDUCATIONAL VIDEO:

    Ranked-choice voting allows voters to choose candidates in order of preference.

  • MATTHEW DUNLAP:

    The key here though more than the people coming into the polls being able to understand it is really them being able to trust it and voter confidence has got to be our ultimate goal that no matter what happens and the outcome of the election. I don’t care who wins. I just want people to believe in the result.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Maine also has a unique history with a contested gubernatorial election that puts a change like ranked-choice voting in conflict with the state’s constitution. A three way race for governor in 1879 with no majority winner, almost led to a violent confrontation after the legislature was unable to decide who won the election.

  • MATTHEW DUNLAP:

    Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain the hero of Gettysburg was called out of retirement to protect the capital from insurrection. They put a cannon in the front door of the state house, snipers on the rooftops and after 12 days they finally sorted it out. And after that the legislature offered up an amendment to the Constitution to say whoever gets the most votes wins. No more of this so that’s why we do it that way. So ranked-choice voting goes in the opposite direction.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    State courts have ruled that without changing Maine’s constitution, ranked-choice voting can only be used in the primary for statewide offices. But for some opponents of the new system, even that is unconstitutional, because it doesn’t make the candidate with the most votes – what’s known as a plurality – the automatic winner.

  • GARRETT MASON:

    The word plurality is very specific in Maine’s constitution. It means first past the post, whoever has the most votes win. And that was deliberate and on purpose.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Republican Garrett Mason is the Maine senate majority leader and a candidate for governor.

  • GARRETT MASON:

    I took an oath to uphold the Constitution. And the Constitution is clear on this matter. It’s illegal.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Mason says partisan forces are behind the push for the new system.

  • GARRETT MASON:

    This was a way to make sure that Paul LePage never got elected again or someone like Paul LePage never got elected again. It’s, it’s mean spirited. It is partisan and it’s just it’s what they’re doing is dragging Maine people through a complete mess.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Mary Mayhew is another candidate for governor in the Republican primary.

  • MARY MAYHEW:

    My own 84-year-old mother who every time she talks to me about ranked-choice voting gets angrier and angrier. She has been voting for a very long time and she does not understand now what she has to do when she goes into the ballot box.

  • CARA MCCORMICK:

    Bringing up this complaint about how it’s going to be too confusing is really just a red herring and brought up by people who oppose the policy of ranked-choice voting.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In fact, last year the legislature voted to delay ranked-choice voting.

    In response, advocates collected nearly 80,000 signatures, which according to Maine law overruled the legislature for the time being. Next month, there will be a ballot measure asking voters to make the system permanent for statewide primaries and federal elections.

    Cara McCormick says this is an issue that attracts people from across the political spectrum.

  • CARA MCCORMICK:

    It is the partisan politicians who are trying to fit it into one of two boxes. But the people of Maine the Democrats, Republicans, and Independents and the volunteers. It’s all of us. We are absolutely nonpartisan.

  • DICK WOODBURY:

    People are just ready for something. And Maine has done enough of the legwork leading up to this point that we can be where we are where we’re actually going to implement ranked-choice voting.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Mainers will head to polls on June 12th.

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