In what may be looked back upon as the most important election in the United States in 2018, the voters of Maine rejected political cynicism on Tuesday and preserved ranked-choice voting (RCV) for its future elections. To appreciate the historic significance of this vote for greater democratic choice, it’s important to understand what Mainers were up against—a two-party duopoly in which “all the levers of power” (in the words of one grassroots activist) were overtly or covertly working to block political reform.
This was not the first time the state’s electorate had voted on RCV. In November 2016, by a 52-48 percent margin, Maine’s voters approved an initiative to implement RCV for all future state and federal elections (save for President). They did what a growing number of U.S. cities have done—opt for more open electoral competition and increased political civility. But Maine’s establishment politicians, particularly in the Republican Party, then set out to negate the will of the voters. There ensued an epic 19-month struggle about much more than voting rules. It became a crucial test case for grassroots political reform. Against all odds, the people prevailed over the politicians on Tuesday, and this time by double the margin (eight percentage points). That margin was aided (and possibly enabled) by tens of thousands of Maine independents, who came out to vote in the primary election even though the referendum on RCV was the only item on the ballot for which they were eligible to vote.
On the surface, it’s hard to see why RCV causes such a storm among party die-hards. It is perfectly compatible with both political parties and party primaries. Indeed, under the initiative passed in 2016, RCV was used on Tuesday—for the first time in U.S. history, and to apparently considerable voter enthusiasm—in Maine’s gubernatorial primary elections. Under RCV, voters can weigh the merits of several candidates, and candidates may need to appeal for the second- or third-preference votes of their rivals’ supporters. If no candidate wins an outright majority, the candidate with the lowest number of first-place votes is eliminated, and the second-preference votes of his or her supporters are redistributed to the remaining candidates. The process continues until someone wins a majority.
But here’s the rub—and the hope. By requiring a candidate to win a majority, and by implementing if necessary a series of “instant run-offs” until that happens, RCV opens up the electoral process to independents and third-party candidates. In the general election, voters no longer need to worry about “wasting” their votes on fresh, unconventional and long-shot options. They can “vote with their hearts” in casting their first-choice votes and then rank second or third the candidates who stir them less but are still preferable to the candidate or party they most oppose. When used to fill individual seats, RCV still requires a candidate to emerge with a majority. So it is far from a death blow to the two-party system. In fact, it would figure to enhance the legitimacy of the governor in Maine, where nine of the past 11 victors have failed to win a majority of the vote. But given that Maine has elected independents in the past—including Angus King as governor and then U.S. Senator—and that independent Eliot Cutler almost won the governorship in 2010, the two parties were not eager to open this reformist can of worms.
Opposition was particularly intense among Maine’s Republicans, whose current governor, Paul LePage, only narrowly beat Cutler (with a mere 38 percent of the vote) in 2010. Under RCV, LePage would probably not have been nominated in 2010, and he certainly would have lost the general election (and possibly his re-election bid, too). A “belligerent, foul-mouthed and polarizing governor” who told the NAACP to “kiss my butt” and compared the IRS to the Nazi Gestapo, LePage is a big part of the reason why Mainers came to feel the need for an “instant run-off” system to produce a more consensual majority winner. In 2016, he drove outrage to new levels when he alleged that black drug dealers “come up here” from Connecticut and New York to “sell their heroin” and “half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.” Such attitudes and comments have made him one of America’s most disliked governors.
Nevertheless, Maine’s Republican Party has waged a relentless political and legal campaign to bury RCV. Along the way, many of the state’s Democrats also publicly or surreptitiously joined the effort, not wanting to risk losing a future governor’s race to an independent. Initially, the party establishments argued that the new voting method would be confusing to the voters and costly to implement and administer, or even (somehow) undemocratic. Some warned that voter confusion would diminish turnout. When none of this proved consistent with the available evidence—which has seen RCV work well in roughly a dozen U.S. municipalities, for over a century to elect the house of Australia’s parliament, and successfully to nominate and select Hollywood’s Oscar winners as well—and when Maine’s voters adopted RCV in 2016, the opponents switched tacks. They charged that RCV violated Maine’s state constitution, which requires that state general elections be decided by plurality vote. In a May 2017 advisory opinion, Maine’s State Supreme Court agreed, but it left intact the use of RCV for all primary elections and for general elections for U.S. Senate and House seats. Rather than amend the state constitution to comply with the voters’ will, or just let the court’s mixed outcome stand, the legislature then seized the opportunity to kill RCV altogether. In October, it passed a law suspending implementation of RCV and giving Maine’s voters until December 2021 to amend the constitution. Since that requires two-thirds of each legislative house (before it even goes to Maine’s voters), this was a thinly veiled way of terminating RCV for all elections in Maine, forever.
But the people of Maine did not go quietly into that good night. Unique among American states, Maine’s constitution provides for something called “the people’s veto referendum.” It enables any six registered voters to submit a proposed veto of a legislative bill to the Secretary of State, who then has ten working days to certify it. After that, advocates have 90 days from the end of the legislative session (in this instance, the same day the bill was passed) to gather the requisite number of signatures of registered voters (over 61,000) to place the referendum on the ballot. The state legislature passed the poison bill on October 23 in the middle of the night, in a special one-day session called for that lone purpose. That ensured the vote would take place in a primary election, when independents (who would be most likely to support RCV) would have no candidates to vote for. The timing was also nearly ideal for undermining a grassroots signature drive, which would have to wrestle with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and the depths of a harsh Maine winter.
But there was one potential silver lining. Ten working days from October 24—when the request to circulate petitions was filed with Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap—was a municipal election day in Maine, November 6, 2017. This still provided an opportunity to stand outside polling stations and collect signatures for the new petitions—if the Secretary of State released them in time. But Dunlap waited until 4:30 p.m. the day before to release the ballot question, and then with a wording of the proposition so convoluted that an ordinary voter could hardly determine from the text alone whether restoring RCV meant a “yes” or “no” vote. Nevertheless, instantly, within three minutes of Dunlap’s release and with just 14 hours until the opening of the polls, the grassroots campaign for the people’s veto began electronically sending out the petitions across the state to copy shops for duplication and then drove them to volunteer gatherers throughout the night. On Election Day, due to superior organization and determination, they obtained 33,000 voter signatures.
Some 1,800 volunteers continued to gather signatures through brutally cold days in December and January—with Portland’s highs hovering at or mercilessly well below freezing. “Every week it was another blizzard, and there was even a weather phenomenon called a bomb cyclone,” said Cara McCormick, whose Chamberlain Project managed the campaign along with Kyle Bailey and the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting. “Our fingers were frozen to the bone; we had to go into our cars to warm up.” Voters asked, “Didn’t we already vote for this a year ago? Why do we have to sign this again?” The political shenanigans of the establishment frustrated people, but it also fired them up. Even people and opinion leaders who hadn’t voted for RCV the first time signed up for the second round. It had become not just a question of electoral method but of whether a bunch of politicians could simply trash the popular will.
When the petitions were due on February 2 of this year, the campaign handed in over 77,000 signatures. As momentum gathered during the signature drive and the advocacy campaign that followed, the campaign drew the support of Phish drummer Jon Fishman, who lives in Lincolnville and staged a supporting concert, and in the final days, the actress, Jennifer Lawrence, the New York Times editorial board, and two Nobel-prize-winning economists. It also raised over a million dollars in funding, much of it from national philanthropists seeking democratic reform. National political reform activist Peter Ackerman chaired the Chamberlain Project.
Once the signatures were certified, the state was obligated to suspend the legislature’s repeal and implement RCV in this past Tuesday’s primary election. Through their vote on the people’s veto referendum, Maine’s voters would then decide if RCV would ever be used again. Yet even for its first conditional use in the primary election, the opposition to RCV would not die. The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting had to keep going back to court to compel the Secretary of State and the state government to implement RCV in the primary. Opponents of RCV said funding was lacking and the legal basis for moving forward was conflicting. In an opinion on April 4, Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy rejected those arguments and ordered the state to proceed with RCV, declaring, “Clarity, stability and public confidence are essential to ensure the legitimacy of Maine elections.”
When the Republican Party failed to get Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court to stop the use of RCV in the primary, it voted at its May 4 convention to change its rules to require a plurality vote to choose its nominees. Then it filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming its First Amendment right of free association entitled it to reject the use of RCV in the primary. That bid failed, too. In a May 24 editorial, the Portland Press Herald noted the absurdity of this supposedly principled claim, given that “the Maine Republican Party selects its own state officers with a series of runoffs that is a functional twin to the same ranked-choice voting law that the party charges would violate its members’ rights.” Finally, as Maine’s voters headed to the polls on Tuesday, Governor LePage declared ranked-choice voting—not terrorism, poverty, the opioid crisis, the ballooning deficit, or North Korea’s nuclear weapons—but RCV “the most horrific thing in the world,” and he threatened not to certify the election—an option he legally does not have.
Along with a growing number of municipalities, political scientists, thoughtful media, and democratic reformers, I have come to think that ranked-choice voting is the single most promising achievable reform for making our politics more open, more civil, more democratic, and more amenable to compromise. But I am a social scientist and a pragmatist, not a religious devotee of this one reform. Let’s try it and see how it works—as we have tried the “top two” system in California and discovered its many unpleasant side effects. Let’s try variations of RCV, even in multi-member districts for state legislature (though I have my serious reservations about that).
But here is what we should not do. We should not let a narrow, out-of-touch political class block a promising reform with half-truths and cynical maneuvers, simply so they can hold on to the continued prospect of victory with thin pluralities or half-hearted majorities of the vote, due to artificial barriers to competition. We are entering a new era of political reform in the United States, driven, like the last big one of a century ago, from the bottom up. And the voters of Maine have just given this movement its most courageous and inspiring victory.