Maine Primary Augurs First Test of Ranked-Choice Voting

AUGUSTA, Maine (CN) – Maine voters will be the first in the nation to use a statewide ranked-choice voting system as the state holds its primary elections Tuesday, having overcome fierce opposition from Republican lawmakers.

Also known as instant-runoff voting, the system allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference, rather than casting a ballot for them, is already causing making waves in state’s gubernatorial primary where seven Democrats are vying to run in the November general election.

“We believe that the only way that the Democrats are going to win in November is if we elect a strong progressive and you’ve got two of us right here,” Betsy Sweet said in a joint ad with fellow Democratic candidate Mark Eves.

“So on June 12th you can vote for me first and Betsy second,” Eves instructs in the ad. “Or me first and him second,” Sweet adds.

The ad highlights what proponents of the new system say is a chance for more civility in politics. They also showcase the ability to vote for your preferred candidate without fear that it’s actually helping your least favorite candidate.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills still leads the Democratic gubernatorial race with a more traditional campaign focused on battling fellow Democrat Adam Cote, a lawyer and military veteran who fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Last week, the national fundraising organization Emily’s List sent $300,000 to a political action committee supporting Mills. Maine Women Together disclosed that it spent $192,000 of the contribution on ads targeting Cote.

“This is outrageous and Maine people shouldn’t stand for it,” Cote said in a statement on his website. “To have an outside group, no matter who it is, drop $200,000 into a Maine gubernatorial race to attack one candidate, six days before an election, is unprecedented and exactly what people hate about politics.”

The field is less fraught in the three-way race for the 2nd Congressional District where Democratic hopefuls are vying for the chance to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Representative Bruce Poliquin. In the 2016 election, the district made history for splitting its four electoral votes to send one to President Trump. It would make history again if it ousted Rep. Poliquin, who has raised far more money than his potential challengers. No incumbent has lost a seat in Maine’s 2nd District in over a century.

While the Democratic primaries have seen candidates embracing ranked-choice voting, all four candidates in the GOP race for governor have openly criticized the new system.

“It’s an absolute disaster,” said Mary Mayhew, the former head of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and a Republican gubernatorial candidate, speaking to Slate in April. “I think it is likely illegal, and it is incredibly confusing to those who administer the elections and to those who are getting ready to vote.”

Several judges have agreed that the system may be unconstitutional. In May last year, the Maine Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion that said the Ranked-Choice Voting Act violated a provision of the Maine Constitution that requires a plurality of votes. A judge cleared the way the following April, ruling that Maine should go forward with the will of the people despite the “significant constitutional issues” the system raises.

Though the Republican Party brought a last-ditch attempt to stop the ranked-choice voting system from being implemented for Tuesday’s primary, U.S. District Judge Jon Levy threw out the challenge on May 29, finding no infringement of the party’s First Amendment rights.

Maine Republicans will have to use the system on Tuesday, but whether they accept the results of the primaries remain to be seen. If the party’s candidates do not win by a plurality, and the ranked-choice method is employed to determine the winner, they are expected to challenge the results in court.

Ranked-choice voting also face another test as voters weigh in a second time on Tuesday. Question 1 is a ballot initiative to preserve the system in a “people’s veto” after the Legislature voted to repeal the system in a special late-night session in October. The campaign has drawn high-profile supporters, including an ad featuring actress Jennifer Lawrence.

Maine voters approved ranked-choice voting in November 2016 after the winners of eight of the last 10 gubernatorial elections won with less than a majority of the vote. Efforts to enact the system picked up steam with the election of controversial two-term Republican Governor Paul LePage, who won with only 37.6 percent in his first election.

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