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Ranked-Choice Voting: What Happened When Some Mainers Took A Test Run

Toby Talbot
Associated Press
Jo LaMarche, the city election director of Burlington, Vt., holds a runoff election ballot for the mayor's race Thursday, March 2, 2006.

A week from Tuesday, Mainer primary voters will participate in a historic democratic experiment: They'll be the first voters in the country to use ranked-choice voting in a statewide election.

But some voters are eager to test this new system early, and a few of them allowed Maine Public Radio to observe as they ranked candidates in order of preference instead of just picking their favorite. As it turns out, these voters were not nearly as confused by the process of ranked-choice voting as they were about a separate ballot question that could determine whether Maine keeps the new system for future elections.

Shonna Milliken Humphrey has sequestered the dogs in the basement for her first attempt at ranked-choice voting. 

A registered Democrat who lives in Hallowell, Humphrey has done some research about the dos and donts for this rarely-used method of deciding elections.  She's checked out the Secretary of State's election page and watched a video tutorial that's been viewed thousands of times on YouTube.

Humphrey knows from her research that she doesn't have to rank all seven Democratic candidates running for governor, so she's settled on ranking just three.  But she's a little torn about who will be her top choice: Attorney General Janet Mills, or Augusta lobbyist Betsy Sweet, who also lives in Hallowell.

"I think both of them would do a wonderful job. I feel like Betsy Sweet is the local choice. She aligns with my values pretty universally. And I also feel like Janet Mills has a lot of experience and might be a better choice for the overall state. So ..." Humphrey deliberates out loud, before making her final decision.

Humphrey's dilemna was shared by Stephen Farrand, another registered Democrat who lives in Freeport. Like Humphrey, Farrand has a pretty good idea of how ranked-choice voting works.

When it was on the ballot in 2016, he voted for it, in part because he thinks the system will help avoid the outcome of the most recent gubernatorial contests.

"I regard Paul LePage's election and re-election as a real disaster for the state," Farrand says. "I don't think it would have happened if we had not had prominent independent candidates."

Supporters of ranked-choice voting say its unique tabulation and its requirement that the winner get at least 50 percent of the vote will avoid splitting the vote in races with multiple candidates.

But as Farrand mulls his absentee ballot, he finds himself thinking strategically. He says he wants to vote his heart and make Betsy Sweet his top choice. But he worries Sweet may not be as strong  in a statewide race as Janet Mills, his No. 2 choice.

"When will that person fall out of the count and then my number two will kick in? How do I deal with that?" he asks. "So it's very complicated."

There's a reason for Farrand's dilemna: While ranked-choice voting is being used on primary day, it won't be used during the gubernatorial election in November because of a Maine Supreme Court opinion last year that found it unconstitutional in that contest.

That means the split-vote factor could be in play during the General Election ... and that weighs heavily on Farrand's calculation.

After ruminating for a few minutes, Farrand carefully marks his ballot.  "So that is Betsy Sweet for No. 1," he says. Farrand marks Mills No. 2.  In total, he ranks five of the seven Democrats.

That's a sharp contrast to Martha Currier, a registered Republican who lives in Augusta.  Currier ranked just one of the four GOP gubernatorial candidates: State Sen. Garrett Mason. 

She says she doesn't have strong feelings about the other three. "Oh, I guess I should put some."

"You don't have to," says this reporter.

"I know I don't have to," she says,  "but I feel like if I don't maybe my second choice doesn't get in. But at the same time, I'm not crazy about this whole process."

Currier has never supported ranked-choice voting. She voted against it in 2016.  She also supports a law the Legislature passed last year that would delay the use of ranked-choice voting in November's congressional races, and potentially repeal the entire system three years from now.

Humphrey, the registered Democrat from Hallowell, has the opposite view - she wants to keep it.

Yet Humphrey and Currier both have trouble with the wording of Question 1, a ballot measure that will determine whether the Legislature's delay and repeal law stands.

They both read the question several times.  "They gotta make these things as complicated as possible," Currier says.

After a close reading, Humphrey and Currier decode the language of Question 1. Humphrey votes yes to keep ranked choice voting, Currier votes no.

The two women's experience could foreshadow a bigger problem for supporters of ranked-choice voting.  The ballot question may be intended to save the new system, but confusion over its wording could sink it.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.