Mainers To Vote On Ranked-Choice System In June's Party Primaries. Will The Unenrolled Turn Out?

Mar 30, 2018

It’s still unclear whether Maine voters will use a landmark ranked choice voting system in June that will purportedly make elections less acrimonious and less partisan. But the fate of the voting system could largely be determined by voters who identify as partisans, and less so by the state’s biggest voting bloc: independents.

On June 12, every registered Maine voter will have a chance to decide if they want to keep at least part of the ranked choice voting system that voters approved in 2016. That’s because there will be a people’s veto question on the June ballot that asks all Maine voters if they want to overturn a law that will repeal ranked choice if a constitutional amendment to allow it to be used in all statewide races isn’t enacted by 2021.

But while all voters will have a say in the people’s veto outcome, how many unenrolled voters will go to the polls in June?

The question is important because Maine is not among the 15 states that has open primary elections.

Maine primary elections are essentially taxpayer-funded party elections in which voters who register with a particular political party are the only ones allowed to vote in primary contests involving gubernatorial, congressional or legislative candidates.

If you’re an unenrolled voter, the only way to participate in a primary candidate election is to change your registration to affiliate with a particular political party.

In Maine, you may register as Democrat, Republican, Green Independent or Libertarian on primary election day. The caveat: You must remain affiliated with the party for a minimum of three months before you’re allowed to change your registration to unenrolled again, or switch to another party.

In open primary states, voters may choose which party’s ballot to vote without registering with the party.

Maine’s system could affect the future of ranked choice voting because it’s possible the June primary won’t interest a lot of unenrolled voters.

Maine is long known for its independent streak. It’s elected independent governors and members of Congress.

Unenrolled voters make up nearly 37 percent of the electorate, according to the latest voter registration statistics from the Maine Secretary of State. Democrats have 32 percent, followed by Republicans (27 percent), Greens (4 percent) and Libertarians (.05 percent).

Although independent or unenrolled voters have the numbers, their inability to vote in the primary contests without enrolling with a political party could dissuade many from participating in the June election - even though they’re allowed to vote on the ranked choice voting ballot question.

However, there are several x-factors that could bring independent voters to the polls, anyway.

Advocates for ranked choice voting are aligned with activists affiliated with independent candidates and causes. The 2016 ballot campaign was well-financed, backed by two-time independent for governor Eliot Cutler, a national network of donors who have backed independent candidates and hundreds of small-dollar donors.

And because of legislative efforts to stall or repeal ranked choice voting, the ballot campaign has remained organized and active. Not only did it organize demonstrations throughout last year, it was also able to get the signatures it needed to get the people’s veto on the June ballot - and they did it during some of the coldest days of the winter.

While the wonkiness of ranked choice voting may not seem like a great voter-mobilization tool, the system’s advocates have repeal efforts and the ongoing implementation disaster to motivate people disenchanted by – or simply disinterested in – the two major political parties.

And there’s another sign of hope for ranked choice advocates.

Although unenrolled voters make up the largest voting bloc, there’s a good chance those voters lean either Democrat or Republican.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center shows that negative views of the other party’s harmful policies is a key factor in a person’s decision to identifying as a Republican or Democrat. This is also true among independents who lean Democrat or Republican.

Most independents who lean to a party cite harm of opposing party’s policies

There is seemingly nary a national political observer that isn’t predicting that 2018 will be a Democratic wave election, in large part because of the unpopularity of Republican President Donald Trump and his pursuit of policies that are anathema to Democrats, and at least prior to 2016, many Republicans, too.

Perhaps the anti-Trump sentiment will persuade left-leaning independents to enroll as Democrats for the June primary. And if they do, maybe they’ll support ranked choice voting.

But if those factors don’t mobilize Maine’s unenrolled voters to participate in June, the future of ranked choice voting could be in the hands of self-identified partisans.

The two major political parties are a big reason why ranked choice voting bills never became law in the Legislature despite multiple attempts.

There are a lot of reasons for this, including familiarity and past success of running under the current plurality system and fears that ranked choice could weaken the parties’ influence on candidates.

But in 2016, the Maine Democratic Party adopted support for ranked choice as part of its policy platform. And on Thursday, it attacked Republican attempts to block implementing the law.

Whether the party’s apparent endorsement of ranked choice is universally felt among its activists and voters is another matter, however.

Meanwhile, Republicans’ campaign to defeat ranked choice is well underway. The Maine Republican Party has described ranked choice as a confusing voter suppression scheme in a string of press releases and action alerts to its members.

The dueling messages are designed to get Democrats and Republicans to the polls in June.

But for both parties, a highly anticipated gubernatorial race and congressional primaries are expected to drive their voters to the polls no matter what.

The question is whether the issue of ranked choice will do the same for unenrolled voters.