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Analysis: In Race of 'Lesser of Two Evils,' Thousands of Mainers Opted Out

Otto Kitsinger
Associated Press
A voter fills out his ballot at the Wilson School House in unincorporated Wilson, Idaho, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016.

The official vote totals are in from the secretary of state, so now might be a good time to applaud the gamblers out there who took the over on the undervote.

The undervote? It's basically political junkie vernacular for people who go through the trouble of voting, but leave parts of the ballot blank. To borrow two prevailing cliches from the election, these voters don't hold their noses and choose the lesser of two evils. They don't wing it or guess if they don't know the candidate or the issue. They just move on and vote for something else.


The undervote is typically high in down-ballot races where votes don't know the candidates.

But not this year.

Nearly 24,000 Mainers didn't vote in the presidential election, but bothered to vote for local candidates or one of the six ballot questions. That's a fairly high number, especially considering that nearly 50,000 more Mainers participated in this year's election than the 2012 election.  Three percent of the ballots in the presidential race were undervotes. That's right, they left it blank.

That's a high percentage - double what it was in 2012. A little more context: 3.5 percent of the ballots on Question 5 were blank. That could be explained by the fact that Question 5 sought to install ranked choice voting, a system unfamiliar to many Mainers, at least according to pre-election polls and interviews.

But it's safe to say Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were familiar to voters. They just happened to be extremely unpopular. That could explain the 1,800 difference between the undervote and Clinton's margin of victory over Trump.

Presidential contests typically drive voter turnout.  That may well have happened this year, too. But it's also true that people showed up to vote for something other than president. Perhaps some voters couldn't suffer the indignity of picking the one candidate they liked the least.

Maine was part of a national surge in undervotes. An analysis of election results in 33 states by the Washington Post found that 1.75 million people skipped the presidential contest this year. That's up 2 percent from 754,000 in 2012. The WaPo analysis also explores whether the undervote could have tipped the election if the people who skipped the presidential contests voted instead.

So did the undervote in Maine set a record? Unknown. Data collected from the secretary of state from previous presidential elections did not include tabulations of blank ballots prior to 2012.