Amid Threat to Ranked-Choice Voting, Supporters Rally at Maine State House

Jun 2, 2017

Maine’s first-in-the-nation ranked-choice voting law is under threat, and advocates of the election reform law know it. Around 50 of them gathered at the State House Thursday to rally against a repeal effort in the Legislature that has a good chance of succeeding.

Kyle Bailey helped lead the campaign to install ranked-choice voting in Maine. The effort was backed by $2.8 million in campaign donations and, ultimately, the desire of close to 400,000 Mainers, who voted to dramatically overhaul the state’s election system.

But the election reform effort now appears doomed.

“The effort to repeal ranked-choice voting is a slap in your face from politicians who think they know better than you. It’s time to tell the politicians in Augusta that we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore,” Bailey said.

He tried to convey urgency for ranked-choice supporters, and to promise electoral consequences for lawmakers who could soon vote to scuttle the law.

“The politicians in Augusta aren’t going to do this unless we knock some sense into them,” Bailey said.

But the politicians in Augusta don’t seem all that concerned. That’s especially true of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who was asked by Portland radio station WGAN Thursday what the Legislature should do with ranked-choice voting.

As usual, the governor didn’t mince words.

“They do have the authority to say, ‘We repeal this law.’ That’s all they have to do right now. Say, ‘Repeal this law,’ and go to the constitution. That’s the right thing for them to do right now. It’s the appropriate thing for them to do,” LePage said.

Prior to last year’s ballot initiative, lawmakers’ response to ranked-choice voting legislation has been dominated by apathy or outright hostility. Now they have political and legal cover: a 51-page Maine Supreme Court opinion that says a key part of the ranked-choice voting law conflicts with a provision of the state constitution in gubernatorial and legislative races — but not in congressional contests.

Ranked-choice supporters now say the Legislature should leave the new law in place for federal contests while working on a constitutional amendment so it can be later implemented for all races. But a constitutional amendment needs two-thirds support from the House and Senate — a high hurdle to clear.

And during their rally on Thursday, ranked-choice voting supporters seemed to recognize that the threat of repeal is greater than the chances of passing the constitutional amendment.

Former Democratic legislator Diane Russell was among those who spoke at the rally.

“If politicians want to step in the way of the Maine people, there is another ballot box that they will be answering to,” she said.

For decades, Maine candidates for state and federal offices have won by obtaining the most votes, also known as a plurality. The election system has come under fire in recent years because, in governor’s races in particular, the campaigns have been divisive and the winners haven’t won with a majority.

Ranked-choice voting supporters say the new system will ensure a majority winner. And, because voters rank candidates in order of preference, candidates won’t be able to simply appeal to their base constituencies.

“We want to have a conversation about who should win the election, not just about who can win the election,” Russell said.

She said recent elections have been influenced by concerns about spoiler candidates. Instead of picking their favorite, she said voters have been forced to chose the one they think can win. And that, she said, has crowded out real debates about policy.

“We don’t talk about the ideas of this state. We don’t talk about the ideas of the candidates,” Russell said.

Whether ranked-choice voting would fix Maine elections and temper its divisive politics is up for debate. But the experiment may be over before it begins.

The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hold a public hearing Friday on a bill to amend the constitution so that ranked-choice voting can be implemented. That hearing will be followed by another on a bill that repeals the law.

This story was originally published on June 1, 2017 at 2:01 p.m. ET.