Maine’s Ranked Choice Primary

By Jim Ellis

Maine Congressional Districts

July 9, 2020 — It is likely we are going to soon see another Maine congressional race decided through the controversial Ranked Choice Voting system. A new Fair Vote commissioned Survey USA poll, from this group that supports Ranked Choice Voting, finds the three 2nd District Republican congressional candidates in a relatively close battle, but with no one realistically nearing the majority support necessary to win the party nomination.

According to the S-USA poll (June 30-July 6; 604 likely ME-2 Republican primary voters), former state representative Dale Crafts would lead ex-gubernatorial aide and former journalist Adrienne Bennett and ex-state senator and 2018 Republican US Senate nominee Eric Brakey, 37-25-19 percent. While Crafts seems to have a comfortable lead even though the three are bunched relatively close together, the fact that no one is likely to reach the 50 percent threshold means that some voters’ alternative choices would next be counted.

The Ranked Choice Voting system was adopted by the Maine electorate in 2016 and first used two years later. Though former US representative Bruce Poliquin (R) had enough votes to place first in the 2018 race, which would have normally awarded him the election, he lost in the Ranked Choice rounds. Poliquin attempted to overturn the system in a federal court challenge but failed to advance it beyond the district level.

The RCV, or “instant runoff,” system, is designed to produce a majority winner after multiple rounds of voting. Maine is the only state that employs the concept. Other domains, mainly in the South, who want party nominees to win a primary with over 50 percent support, hold a secondary election on a future day. In the RCV system, the initial primary and runoffs are conducted on the same ballot.

In the 2nd District Republican primary this coming Tuesday, since there are only three candidates, voters will mark their ballots from 1 to 3, thus clarifying their preferences beyond the individual they initially choose from the field. After the first round of voting, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and election officials then comb through all of the cast ballots to find those where the last place candidate was the first choice. These ballots are then added back into the pool with their second choice added to the aggregate vote. If no candidate receives a majority after the second round, a third begins sans the new last place candidate if there are more than two contenders remaining.

After voters adopted the RCV procedure, the Maine legislature petitioned the state Supreme Court for an advisory opinion regarding the constitutionality of such a system. The high court ruled that under the Maine Constitution, RCV is invalid because the governing document clearly recognizes plurality victories. The court further said that it does not have jurisdiction in federal races or party-run primaries, so they cannot prevent the system from being used for those contests.

The system is controversial because some voters, i.e., those who voted for the last-place candidate as the first choice, have more of their votes counted than those who voted for other candidates. Thus, some individuals are awarded multiple votes while others are not.

Survey USA delved into a proposed second round for the current election, presuming that Brakey would be eliminated for finishing last in the three-person field. This means Crafts and Bennett would advance into the second round. Since there are only two candidates remaining, the second round would produce a majority winner.

Such a Crafts-Bennett contest would be interesting since both tout their relationship with former governor Paul LePage (R). Though Bennett was the ex-governor’s press secretary for several years, LePage endorsed former Rep. Crafts. The former governor explained that he was unaware Bennett was going to run when Crafts solicited his endorsement.

Should Brakey finish last, the Crafts-Bennett secondary contest has the potential of being close, at least according to S-USA who polled the 489 respondents who expressed an original first-place preference. The Brakey voters would split 40-33 percent for Crafts, with 27 percent saying they would be undecided. If Bennett were to finish last, her voters would lean more heavily toward Crafts, 46-28 percent.

Interestingly, 58 percent of the entire Republican likely primary voter sample, however, said they did not plan to rank their ballots meaning fewer votes than expected would remain to decide the outcome.

The Maine primary is July 14, and Gov. Janet Mills (D) ordered an enhanced absentee ballot mail option. According to this survey, however, 79 percent of the respondents plan to vote in person. Freshman Rep. Jared Golden (D-Lewiston) is unopposed for re-nomination in the Democratic primary.

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