Advocates for ranked-choice voting say that it hasn’t been used enough to draw conclusions on who benefits, and that it sets up a fairer way to campaign and vote. It helps incorporate people who vote for a third party, because rather than essentially throwing away their votes, their second and maybe even third choices will get tabulated in subsequent rounds if no candidate gets over 50 percent.
And that means that the candidate who wins a close race did it by creating a big enough coalition to be the second choice of enough people.
That’s likely especially true in this year’s super-close Senate race, where polls show neither Collins nor her Democratic challenger, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, getting over 50 percent of the vote. If no one gets over 50 percent, then ranked-choice voting kicks in and the second choices of the lowest-ranked candidates’ votes start to get tabulated.
“You have this interesting gymnastics, where you need to will voters to get over 50 percent,” said Rob Richie, chief executive of FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for electoral reforms such as ranked-choice voting.
Maine is a state with a strong independent streak. Its voters have sent Collins to the Senate for the past 24 years even as it has voted for the Democrat for president going back to 1992. It’s also a state that highly values third parties. Its other senator, Angus King, is an independent who caucuses with Democrats. Collins has benefited from getting elected and reelected by independent voters over the years.
But this will be the first election Collins faces where voters will rank her, and it comes, Democrats note, as her approval rating has dropped in the wake of Democratic attacks she’s no longer an independent votes. FairVote worked with SurveyUSA to try to model what could happen in that race, since there are two other third-party candidates on the ballot, a liberal and a conservative.
They find Gideon likely starts with a small lead over Collins in the first round, which is consistent with what most polls show. And then Gideon expands her lead in the second round, but not above 50 percent. She expands her lead enough to beat Collins in a third round of voting. “Both Gideon and Collins benefit from second- and third-choice support from voters, but progressive independent Lisa Savage earns far more first-choice support than conservative Max Linn,” according to the survey.
It helps Gideon that Savage has been explicit in campaigning, urging her supporters to put Gideon second.
But this is all within the margin of error, and the takeaway is that the Senate race in Maine is going to be close, which we’ve always known.
But that’s exactly the kind of news Republicans don’t want to hear. In 2018 under this system, a Republican member of Congress lost reelection in the second round despite getting more first-place votes.
Maine Republicans have been fighting ranked-choice voting for years. The Republican-controlled legislature basically repealed it a year after voters approved it.
It went back into effect, but Maine’s Republican Party has spent much of 2020 suing to stop it from expanding and going into effect in the presidential election this November. (This will be the first year Maine will use it in a presidential contest, and evidence shows it could favor Democrat Joe Biden in the contested second Maine congressional district. Maine allocates two of the state’s four electoral votes to its two congressional districts, and the second is up for grabs between Biden and President Trump. Trump won it easily in 2016.)
At this point, ranked-choice voting seems here to stay in Maine. Republicans lost their case in Maine courts and appealed it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected hearing the case last month. Even some of ranked-choice voting’s critics don’t see the point in fighting it anymore. “Even though ranked-choice voting is a terrible idea that should never have been passed, it’s also not worth the endless fighting,” wrote Maine conservative activist Jim Fossel, who used to work for Collins, in the Portland Press Herald recently.
Sooner or later, said Richie, a Republican is going to win under this new system in Maine. And that’s when he hopes the partisanship will be sucked out of fighting the system.
He argues if ranked-choice were an option in South Carolina’s competitive Senate race, for example, it would probably be helping Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R). Even though a third-party candidate withdrew and endorsed Graham, this candidate’s name will still be on the ballot at the very top, which could take away some votes from Graham. (Graham and Democrat Jaime Harrison are polling close, within the margin of error.) In a ranked-choice voting system, those votes could be reallocated — likely many to Graham — if voting had to go to a second round.
“It’s just inevitable that some key race in ranked-choice voting will help the Republican in Maine,” Richie said, “so Democrats will have to swallow hard and realize when you have a democracy, you win some, you lose some.”
But odds aren’t looking good that Collins will be that first Republican to break through and win under ranked choice. She could instead be the second major one to lose.