Ranked-Choice Voting Helps Independents Factor In Maine Races

Sep 18, 2018

In most states, independent candidates for major office are given little notice by the media or by voters. But Maine is different, and its on again, off again love affair with independents started years ago.

It all started back with the governor’s race in 1974, with the unexpected win of Lewiston businessman James Longley. He beat Republican Jim Erwin and Democrat George Mitchell, who would later serve as majority leader of the U.S. Senate.

Longley crisscrossed the state giving speeches to any group that would have him. He became so popular during his 4-year term that he raised lots of speculation about whether he would seek another term, or even run for U.S. Senate.

“I’m taking a day at a time. I have not ruled out or determined what direction I will be moving at this particular point. My objective has not changed and that’s to go back to my family, my business. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t reserve the right to change,” he said in a news conference in Jan. 1978.

Longley decided not to run for either office, but his success emboldened other independents to run for governor and Congress over the years. In 1994, Angus King squeaked out a win in a four-way governor’s race that included a Green Party nominee, former Democratic Gov. Joe Brennan and Republican Susan Collins.

University of Southern Maine political science professor Ron Schmidt says all that shows how accepting Maine voters are of independent candidates.

“We have had successful independent candidates, and that suggests to voters that’s a viable way to run the government,” he says.

This year there are two independents running for governor, one for the U.S. Senate, one in Maine’s 1st Congressional District and two in the 2nd District. Another factor in this year’s political equations is that ranked-choice voting will be used in Maine’s Congressional and Senate races.

Marty Grohman, a Democrat turned independent, believes that ranked-choice voting will help his campaign in the 1st District. He reasons that supporters of Republican Mark Holbrook are more likely to rank him their second choice, rather than select incumbent Democrat Chellie Pingree.

Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine, says Grohman may be on to something.

“We are actually going to get to see kind of this real-world laboratory experiment, to see if this is going to change anything. And I think it’s not impossible to imagine him coming out on top, but I still think it’s unlikely,” he says.

University of Maine at Farmington political science professor Jim Melcher agrees that Grohman could get traction if the contest goes to a second round of ranked-choice voting.

“Republicans who seem quite happy with supporting Marty Grohman, some have endorsed him. Certainly, people would be willing to put him as a second choice,” he says.

But University of New England political science professor Brian Duff says Pingree is in no real danger.

“I don’t think it’s viable. I mean that Chellie Pingree should not be too worried about the election. She’s a liberal Democrat in a district that has a lot of liberal Democrats,” he says.

All of the political scientists interviewed for this story agree that ranked-choice voting will most likely not be a factor in the Senate race, where early polling has King at over 50 percent. But they say it could have an effect in the 2nd Congressional District, where incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin is facing a tough challenge from Democrat Jared Golden.

There are also two independents in that race — Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar. Both have only garnered low single digits in polling, but could help decide the race in subsequent voting rounds if neither Poliquin or Golden do not get 50 percent on Election Day.

Originally published Sept. 17, 2018 at 5:18 p.m. ET.