How Well Do Maine Voters Understand Ranked-Choice Voting?
Question 5 on this year’s ballot proposes a dramatic overhaul of Maine’s election system called ranked-choice voting, and recent polls suggest Mainers are open to the using it to elect their governor, state legislators and members of Congress. But the biggest obstacle facing the Yes on 5 campaign isn’t well-funded opposition or even organized opposition — it’s voter confusion.
The coalition of groups attempting to replace Maine’s plurality-wins election system with ranked-choice voting have tried just about everything to keep the concept simple. They’ve hosted beer tastings, a mailer sent to voters’ homes tried swapping candidates for flavors of ice cream and a political action committee called The Chamberlain Project has run television ads that attempt to explain the concept in 10 seconds flat.
“Question 5 gives you the power to rank candidates in your order of preference. Last-place candidates are eliminated round by round until the candidate with a majority in the final round wins,” the ad says.
That same group has also run ads that might just capture current sentiment of the electorate.
“Did you ever hold your nose to vote for the lesser of two evils, just to keep a candidate you really despised from winning?” it says.
That last ad might very well resonate with Mainers longing for a viable third choice in the presidential election. It might even resonate with voters who hoped to avoid electing Republican Gov. Paul LePage for a second time two years ago. But is that enough to convince Mainers to ditch the current system for a completely new one?
The answer? Unclear.
“I had never even heard of it. I heard of the other questions, but I never heard of that being on the ballot,” says Brittany Nugent of Bangor, one of several voters who voted absentee at Bangor City Hall.
Nugent tells Maine Public that she based her decision on the wording of the ballot question.
That was the same story for Corey Eldridge.
“I don’t feel like I quite knew what it was asking. I got the gist of it, but I hadn’t heard much of anybody telling me what it was ahead of time,” he says.
But Theodore Rippy, also of Bangor, thinks he gets it and he was able to explain the process to a reporter.
“I believe I had a good grasp. I think it’s a pretty good idea. I don’t think it will hurt anything,” he says.
A poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald in September suggested Mainers are supportive. Forty-eight percent of respondents said they would support the change and only 29 percent were opposed. But 23 percent were undecided, and that’s a fairly high number.
The concern among ranked-choice advocates is that people who are unsure will simply vote no.
“We know that if voters understand what this is, and what it can do for them, they’re overwhelmingly supportive,” says Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for Mainers for Ranked Choice Voting.
So far, the three leading campaign committees supporting ranked-choice voting have spent over $330,000 making their pitch to voters, according to the latest finance reports. That includes mailers, TV and web advertising. Other efforts may be underway, but none of those are easy to track or quantify.
The coalition of support groups has divided the electioneering duties among several political action committees. The ice cream mailer, for example, is produced by the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive activist group. The TV ads were paid for by a PAC called The Chamberlain Project. The beer elections have been put on by the Mainers for Ranked Choice Voting. And phone banking is being done by FairVote, a national organization pushing ranked choice in Maine and other states.
Bailey acknowledges that the number of undecided voters is a challenge, but he says the campaign is gaining ground.
“Well, our internal polling on the campaign shows higher support than the last public poll conducted by the Portland Press Herald. And you’re right, that there’s a lot of undecided voters on this question, who are looking for more information,” he says.
Bailey is confident that the coordinated campaign is getting out its message. He says the coalition has purchased TV ads through Election Day.
The campaign has two weeks left to make its case — and even less, because absentee voting is well underway. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has estimated that roughly 270,000 Mainers could vote absentee this election.