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Ranked Choice Voting Advocates Deliver Signatures

Mal Leary
Former Maine Sen. Dick Woodbury formally submits signatures to the secretary of state's office.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Supporters of instant-runoff voting, sometimes called ranked-choice voting, have submitted nearly 70,000 signatures to initiate legislation in Maine that would require the process in electing members of Congress, the Legislature and the governor's office.

Let’s say you are choosing between six candidates for governor in a primary election. Under the proposal, you, the voter, could rank your favorites in order, without being required to rank every candidate.

The candidate with the lowest vote total would have to drop out, and all of their votes would be redistributed. Then, if none of candidates has a clear majority of the votes, the candidate with the fifth largest total is dropped from the count, and his or her voters' 2nd choice is added to the remaining candidates' tabulations.

Sound complicated? Supporters say it isn't, really.

"The voting is done with a very simple document," says former Republican state Sen. Peter Mills.

He acknowledges that ranked voting sounds involved, but that it won't be that hard for voters themselves.

"The back end, the counting may be a little complex, but it can be done today, instantly, by computers," Mills says.

That is true for many Maine communities, but some smaller towns still use paper ballots, and the instant part of the instant run-off process might not be as fast as supporters would hope.

Still, backers of ranked-choice voting are confident that any problems can be worked out.

"I don't think I have ever seen a citizens initiative that has the breadth of support from across the political spectrum that this initiative has," says former independent Sen. Dick Woodbury, who chairs the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting that submitted the signatures to start the process.

Under current election law the candidate who receives the most votes, a plurality, wins the election.

This proposal has the potential to dramatically change how Mainers elect their leaders, both U.S. senators and representatives, as well as their governors, state senators and state representatives. Democratic state Sen. Chris Johnson from Somerville says that is why he thinks it has been defeated in past sessions, but he is cautiously optimistic that broad public support may make the difference this time.

"There are a lot of members of the public with these petitions have shown there is a will to do it," he says. "That might just sway the amount of support we need in the Legislature. But there have been initiatives for years now to try and make this happen in the Legislature, and it hasn't."

Under the citizens initiative process, if enough valid signatures are found to have been submitted, lawmakers must consider the proposal in the January session.

If lawmakers reject it, voters will then decide the issue in a referendum next year.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.