Ranked-choice voting, which is sometimes called instant-runoff voting, allows voters to number their choices on a ballot instead of just selecting one candidate. The winning candidate in a ranked-choice election must win more than 50 percent of the votes, not the simple plurality required in traditional U.S. elections.
If a candidate garners a majority of first-choice votes, then they win the election outright. If not, the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated, and their voters’ second-choice candidates get their votes instead. If someone hits more than 50 percent that second round, then a winner is declared. If not, the candidate with the lowest votes gets eliminated again, and those votes are applied to the voters’ next choice. And so on, until someone gets a majority.
According to the Maine secretary of state’s office, their state law instituting ranked-choice voting stipulates that the ranked-choice votes are tabulated in rounds until only the two candidates with the most votes remain. Then the one with more votes is declared the winner.
In most ranked-choice elections, the plurality winner still ends up winning. The instances where it can tip the scales are in races with multiple candidates with overlapping positions on some issues, such as in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R) and state Rep. Jared Golden (D) are in a dead heat in the polls, with two independents — Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar — trailing far behind. By all indications, second-choice votes will decide who wins a majority in the district.
Bond, Hoar and Golden have all pledged to accept the outcome from ranked-choice tabulation, but Poliquin refused to answer the yes-or-no question at their final debate.
“I’m going to circle in Bruce Poliquin, one and only vote, drop it in the box, and go forward,” he said on Oct. 16.
“I don’t think he answered the question, but yes, absolutely,” Golden rebutted.
Other cities, countries and organizations already use ranked-choice voting, including San Francisco, Australia and the Academy Awards’ best picture category. Proponents of the system say that it fosters majority rule by design, can cultivate more centrist candidates and more civilized campaigns and opens the door for stronger third-party candidates — or at the very least removes the fear of “vote splitting.”
Remember the backlash at Jill Stein and Green Party voters after the 2016 election? Some argued that without Stein getting votes from the left, we would have President Hillary Clinton instead of President Trump. The argument relies heavily on hypotheticals, disregards actual polling and minimizes the effect that the electoral college, gerrymandering and voter demographics played in Trump’s victory. Ranked-choice voting probably wouldn’t have tipped the scales to Clinton in 2016. But frustration over third-party candidates is something voting reform supporters seek to eliminate: In ranked-choice voting, voters don’t have to worry about splitting their votes between two candidates.
But there are potential flaws: Opponents say that people’s votes essentially don’t count if their ballot is “exhausted,” which happens if they choose not to rank the candidates and their first choice doesn’t win, that it makes voting too complicated and lengthy and that only centrist second-choice candidates could feasibly win.
The outrage at the Oakland mayoral race in 2010 exemplifies the discontent with ranked-choice voting elevating a second-choice candidate to victory. Front-runner and plurality winner Don Perata was eventually defeated by Jean Quan, who focused on casting a wide net and wooing other candidates’ supporters for their second-choice vote. His supporters accused Quan of “gaming the system” to reach a majority in a crowded field.
In Maine, the change to ranked-choice voting was sparked by a host of factors: a historically independent electorate, frustration with recent polarizing elections such as that of Gov. Paul LePage (R) and multiple failed attempts to implement ranked-choice voting through the state legislature. Citizens collected signatures for an initiative petition and approved the measure as a ballot question in November 2016.
The state has had a rocky road to implementing ranked-choice voting. After voters approved using it for the 2018 elections, Maine’s legislature voted to delay its use until 2021, forcing proponents to rally behind another ballot measure in June 2018 to veto that legislation. That referendum passed with 54 percent of the vote and ensured the use of ranked-choice voting this fall. But its implementation is still on hold for state-level positions in the general election, because of a court opinion on the state constitution’s use of the word “plurality,” meaning that parts of voters’ ballots will include a ranked-choice section and the other parts will not.
Many voters in Maine’s 2nd District were enthusiastic about the change.
“Ranked-choice voting gives me an opportunity to at least express my opinion. And even if my candidate doesn’t win, they’ve got the input,” said Jan Hill from Bangor, who voted in June’s Republican primary.
“I think that it gives the people a larger voice, and you don't have to choose between red and blue, Democrat or Republican. That kind of opens up the field a little bit more and gives us more of a voice,” said Josh Hill from Brewer.
“There is still definitely a learning curve with ranked choice voting. There was in the primaries as well as even now, I think,” said Sarah McCarthy from Bangor. “I personally feel more comfortable with it and have a better understanding. I don’t think I still fully understand it, but I definitely have a better understanding having gone through it in June.”
With the election just around the corner and a potentially lengthy counting process looming, Bond, Hoar and Golden are unified in giving one another their second- and third-choice votes.
“They’re both nice people,” Golden said at the Oct. 16 debate.
Bond joined in, “You’d be foolish not to rank, because you might end up with the other guy.”
This post has been updated.