Ranked-Choice Voting: Majority Rules in Maine’s New Voting System

Maine voters gave a vote of confidence on Tuesday to a vote-counting system that guarantees elected officials will have majority - not just plurality - support

In Tuesday’s primary, Maine voters became the first in the nation to use ranked-choice voting for a statewide election, listing candidates in their order of preference so votes can be tabulated in a way that ensures the eventual winners have majority – not just plurality – support.

That same day, voters also agreed to retain this system in future elections, overruling an effort by state legislators to delay and eventually reverse the ranked-choice system.

Through a voter initiative, Maine adopted ranked-choice voting in 2016. But state legislators opposed to the change passed legislation to overrule the voter decision. Question 1 on Tuesday’s ballot was a second voter initiative, or “People’s Veto,” that overruled the lawmakers, as 54 percent of Mainers voted to retain the ranked-choice system.

Under the ranked-choice, or “instant run-off” system, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated, and votes are redistributed to the second choice candidates of their voters. This process continues until one candidate gains a majority.

After the legislature tried to derail the results of the 2016 initiative, proponents of ranked-choice voting collected 80,000 signatures to put Tuesday’s veto referendum on the ballot.

Maine’s uphill battle for ranked-choice voting reflects the frustration of increasing numbers of Americans with the voting system. The “plurality system” which is dominant in America, elects candidates who receive the most votes, even when they fall short of a majority.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage is among the many plurality winners holding office across the country. In 2010, he won a seven-way Republican primary in 2010 with 37% of the vote and beat a Democrat and three independents in the general election to win the governorship with only 38% of the vote. He was re-elected in 2014 with a 48 percent plurality.

Maine Democrats had a three-way primary for governor on Tuesday in which no one received a majority; the results are being re-tabluated today using the ranked-choice system.

Critics of the plurality system argue that it not only produces unpopular winners in multi-candidate races, but by limiting voter choice, it discourages voter turnout, disadvantages third-party candidates and increases polarization between parties.

Ranked-choice supporters also say the system offers a solution to many of the problems that plague our democratic process. “We need people to feel free to vote their conscience not their fears…” said State Rep. Norman Higgins, I-20th District. Ranked-choice voting “has been supported by voters not once but twice. We need to listen,” he said. The passage of Question 1 forces the Maine legislature to listen to  citizens as their state leads the way toward ranked-choice voting across the country.

Jane Hood is a Common Cause intern.