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Results Of Nation’s First Statewide Ranked-Choice Voting Election: Mills and Golden Win Nominations

Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Attorney General Janet Mills is the Democratic nominee for governor

Attorney General Janet Mills is the Democratic nominee for governor, according to official results from Maine’s first ranked-choice voting election announced by the Maine Secretary of State Wednesday.

Mills won with 54 percent after four runoff rounds over Adam Cote, who finished with close to 46 percent. That gave Mills a majority, a threshold required to win under Maine’s landmark ranked-choice voting law that voters approved nearly two years ago.

“It’s about my vision of a Maine that is undivided, is prosperous north to south, west to east, and a Maine that works for everybody,” Mills said.

The announcement at a central counting facility in Augusta came over a week after primary voters went to the polls to determine which Republican and Democratic candidate will compete to replace Republican Gov. Paul LePage who is term-limited and will leave office next year.

Cote issued a statement saying, "it is time for all Democrats and all Mainers who want to see a better future for our state to get involved and help Janet run the strongest campaign possible and win in November.”

Republican primary voters selected Shawn Moody as their nominee. The founder of a chain of auto body repair shops obtained over 56 percent of the vote, a result that allowed him to declare victory on election night because he obtained an outright majority and avoided a runoff that delayed the announcement of the Democratic winner for over a week.

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff, is used in races with more than two candidates.

Credit Maine Secretary of State
Maine Secretary of State
Prepping ballots for manual entry

Voters rank candidates in order of preference. If one of the candidates obtains a majority after the first count, they win. If there’s no majority winner, the ranking tabulation begins. The candidate with the fewest first-place rankings is eliminated and each of their voters’ second choices are added to the tallies of the remaining candidates. The process continues this way until the ranking tabulation produces a winner or all the ballots are exhausted.

The system has been under the siege from political and legal challenges since voters approved it in 2016.

Nonetheless, voters have now said twice that they want to use it. Last week, a majority of voters ratified its use in future elections when they voted overturn the Legislature’s law to delay implementation ranked choice and to repeal it if no constitutional amendment is passed before 2021 that will allow it to be used in all statewide races.

The peoples veto referendum vote means that the system will be used for three congressional races in November.

But it will not be used in the governor’s race or legislative races until voters pass a constitutional amendment strikes an obscure provision in the state constitution that says those contests are determined by a plurality – or most votes win.

Ranked-choice voting was used in the gubernatorial and one legislative primary because the plurality provision in the constitution only addresses general elections, not primaries, which are essentially party nomination races administered and paid for by the state.

Wednesday’s runoff tabulation also determined the winner of the three-way Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District seat, assistant state House leader Jared Golden.

Credit Steve Mistler / Maine Public
Maine Public
Wednesday’s runoff tabulation also determined the winner of the three-way Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District seat, assistant state House leader Jared Golden.

Golden was close to obtaining an outright majority on election night, but he needed a runoff round to defeat Lucas St. Clair, who is the son of Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby and who played a key role in establishing the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Golden beat St. Clair, 54 percent to 45 percent. It took one runoff round to put Golden over the top in the gubernatorial contest.

Golden will now take on Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin.  Golden said he wasn’t concerned that he’d taking on a wealthy incumbent in a district that went for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. He said 2nd Congressional District voters support several of the policies that he’s running on, including raising wages, bolstering infrastructure and improving access to health care.

“I’m not worried about appealing to the president’s supporters in this district," he said. "The job is to show them that I’m with them on health care, on wages, on retirement benefits, Social Security and Medicare, and Bruce Poliquin is on the wrong side of all those.”

Supporters of ranked-choice voting argue that the system gives voters more choice in elections and forces candidates to avoid negative attacks because it might discourage their rivals’ supporters from giving them secondary rankings that could help them win in runoff rounds.

But the Democratic and Republican primaries both challenged the assertion that ranked choice will curb negative campaigning while also prompting questions about whether outside groups that can spend unlimited amounts on elections will increase their efforts.

Each of the four GOP candidates essentially vowed to continue LePage’s policy agenda, but ranked-choice voting did not stop them from attacking one another. Moody was hit on all sides, both for being a late convert to the Republican party and for running a campaign that highlighted his businessman credentials but that was light and muddled on policy.

Meanwhile, Mills and Cote bickered over gun control policy and tribal water rights. Mills also attacked Cote for registering as Republican and voting in the 2000 presidential primary 18 years ago.

Mills’ attack was bolstered by a $300,000 ad campaign by EMILY’s List, a national group that attempts to help elect pro-choice women.

The EMILY’s List attack on Cote was significant in both amount and timing. Outside groups that can spend unlimited amounts are increasingly active in Maine and have spent millions to influence voters. But the EMILY’s List attack came just days before the primary against the pro-choice Cote, and according to publicly-available metric provided by Facebook, exclusively targeted women voters – a voting block expected to be highly motivated in this year’s election. The ads appeared to generate some backlash among Democratic primary voters, although its effect on the race, if any, is ultimately unknown.

Now the focus shifts to November and a gubernatorial race that won’t just feature Mills and Moody, but independent candidates Alan Caron, an entrepreneur from Freeport, and Teresa Hayes, who is currently the state treasurer.  In a statement released Wednesday, Hayes touted her lack of party affiliation. “It’s time for the Maine people to make their choice for a candidate not beholden to special interests, wealthy donors and partisan political platforms," she said.

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