Maine’s Instant Run-Off Examined

By Jim Ellis

MAINEJune 15, 2018 — An interesting situation is developing from the still-in-progress Maine primary that could become a test case for either changing or instituting state run-off electoral systems.

As you know, run-offs ensure that a party nominee obtains a majority or, in the case of North Carolina and South Dakota, a substantial share of the vote. The run-off’s purpose is to prevent a party from nominating a winner in a multi-candidate election who garners only a small plurality.

The South Carolina 4th Congressional District race is a good example of why some states choose a run-off format. On Tuesday, both parties advanced a pair of candidates into respective run-off elections because no one came close to receiving majority support.

For the Republicans, with 13 candidates running to succeed retiring Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-Spartanburg), former state Sen. Lee Bright finished first, but with only 25 percent of the vote. In most other states, he would have been nominated. Since, 75 percent of the Republican voters chose another candidate, the run-off ensues. On June 26, Bright and state Sen. William Timmons (R-Greenville), who finished second with 19.2 percent, will decide the party nomination in one-on-one electoral competition. On the Democratic side, candidates Doris Lee Turner (29.4 percent) and Brandon Brown (28.5 percent) advance, while Eric Graben (25.7 percent), Will Morin (9.1 percent), and J.T. Davis (7.2 percent) are eliminated.

Maine is testing a unique new system that prevents situations such as their own that occurred in the past two gubernatorial elections, but avoids the cost of holding another separate election. Political observers will now see if their new idea will work and potentially withstand a legal challenge.

In both 2010 and 2014, Gov. Paul LePage (R) was elected without majority support. This occurred because Maine voters often elect Independent candidates, or see such individuals attract substantial voting support. Since both previous gubernatorial races featured credible Republican, Democratic, and Independent candidates, the vote split and allowed LePage to win with 37.6 percent (2010) and 47.7 percent (2014).

To ensure broader support, Maine voters adopted a proposition instructing the legislature to create an “instant” run-off system — that is, one where people vote in a secondary election on the same day. Obviously, since it is difficult to know who would advance in a crowded field before the election, the members of the state House and Senate were faced with a difficult task.

Their solution was to create a ranked voting system, and we are seeing its first test right now. On Tuesday, Democrats failed to grant majority support to any of their eight open race gubernatorial candidates, so the instant run-off took place. In all races, Maine voters now must rank their selections based upon the number of candidates in a particular race. If no candidate receives an outright majority, the ranked votes take precedence.

On Tuesday, appointed Attorney General Janet Mills received 32.9 percent of the vote and finished first. Businessman Adam Cote was second with 28.5 percent, and the remaining six candidates fell between 16.1 and 1.4 percent support. Obviously, no candidate is near obtaining a majority. In all past years, Mills would have been nominated.

Beginning Friday, the state election officials will begin counting the ranked votes, and they will determine the party nominee. While at the polling place, voters were asked to rank their choices from one to eight, because the race featured eight candidates. The last place candidate, Donna Dion, will be eliminated and the election authorities will look at all ballots where Dion was the first choice. Those rankings, eliminating the Dion first place votes, will then be distributed to the remaining seven candidates. After the distribution, they will then eliminate the next last place finisher, which will likely be Diane Russell, who scored 2.3 percent first-choice support. This process continues until a candidate exceeds majority support. Therefore, it could be well into next week before it is clear who wins the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

But, even then the race may not be over. In Maine, the governor has the authority to certify final election results, and Gov. LePage, who is ineligible to seek a third term, said yesterday that he may not certify this race. He believes the new system to be illegitimate. A previous court ruling upheld the validity of forcing the legislature to develop an instant run-off system, but the actual procedure has yet to be legally tested. If LePage does not certify, the ballots then go to court for final resolution. The governor says he wants the courts to examine the system, so this nomination period could drag on for several weeks.

In the end, the eventual nominee will face businessman Shawn Moody, who won the Republican gubernatorial campaign with 56 percent of the vote. Therefore, because he obtained majority support, no instant run-off is needed.

The instant run-off idea is an interesting one, and does merit watching how the actual system implementation and potential subsequent court challenge finally unfolds. It obviously remains to be seen if the system proves feasible, or if any other state or local election jurisdiction will eventually adopt the instant run-off procedure as its own.

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