Maine struggles to launch first statewide 'ranked-choice voting' system

A chaotic process is underway in Maine as officials try to figure out whether to implement a ballot decision that would drastically change the way voters choose candidates for public office.

Voters approved the change by 52 percent last November, calling for a ‘ranked-choice voting’ system for most state and federal elections.

Maine would become the first state in the nation to implement the system, which works like this:

  • In races with three or more candidates, voters rank their choices.
  • If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of first-ranked votes, the candidate with the fewest ‘number one’ rankings is eliminated.
  • Ballots that had ranked the eliminated candidate as the top choice are then assigned to their second choice, with the process repeating until one candidate has a majority of votes.

It’s complicated -- and also could be legally problematic.

In May, the Maine State Superior Judicial Court issued an advisory opinion saying that ranked choice voting would violate the state constitution, which requires electoral winners to be decided by a “plurality.”

“The object must always be to ‘ascertain the will of the people,'” the court wrote. “Nonetheless, when a statute – including one enacted by citizen initiative – conflicts with a constitutional provision, the constitution prevails.”

However, this violation would only apply to state-level elections, not federal ones; the law involves voting for both. The court said the state could vote to repeal the law or work on introducing a constitutional amendment to allow for it.

Because the court’s ruling was just an advisory, it does not stop the law from going into effect. The state legislature has tried -- and failed -- on three separate occasions to figure out what to do with the law ahead of the June 2018 primary elections, with supporters of ranked-choice voting calling for a constitutional amendment.

“Our legislators were elected last November on the same ballot as ranked-choice voting,” Kyle Bailey, a spokesman for the Committee on Ranked Choice Voting, told the Portland Press Herald earlier this year. “They have a duty and a privilege, a responsibility to carry out the will of the people.”

On Monday, the state’s Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee held a public hearing on a bill to implement the parts of the law that did not violate the constitution while delaying others. But lawmakers reportedly failed to reach a consensus on the bill, which opponents said would cause mass confusion if voters elected federal officials one way, and state officials another way.

Instead, committee lawmakers gave recommendations that the state legislature is expected to consider during a special session beginning Oct. 23.

If no decision is reached by June, ranked-choice voting will be implemented for the 2018 primary and general elections. However, any state election results based off this system could be subject to a constitutional challenge in court.

Though Maine would be the first to use this system in statewide elections, several municipalities currently use RCV to decide local elections. Cities in California – including Berkeley and San Francisco – as well as in Minnesota, Maryland, Maine and Colorado use RCV for mayoral and other citywide elections.