Maine Becomes First State in Nation to Adopt Ranked Choice Voting System

Posted Nov. 23, 2016

MP3 Interview with Kyle Bailey, campaign manager with Maine’s Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

rankedchoice

On Election Day, Maine became the first state in the nation to approve a ballot measure establishing ranked choice voting, also known as instant run-off voting. It's a method that enables citizens to vote for the candidates they really want, and to rank other candidates as their second, third or even fourth choices for any given elected office. A number of cities across the U.S. already use Ranked Choice Voting, including San Francisco, California; Portland, Maine; Takoma Park, Maryland and St. Paul, Minnesota.

The ballot measure was organized through a citizen initiative called the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting that collected 62,000 signatures to place the referendum question on the Nov. 8 ballot. The group built a broad-based coalition that includes the League of Women Voters of Maine, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and other allied organizations.

The ranked choice voting system will apply to races for Congress, governor, state house and senate seats, as well as party primary elections. The push for the measure was inspired by the fact that in nine of the last 11 elections for governor in Maine, the candidate who won received less than 50 percent of the vote, with third party candidates often labeled as spoilers. Many Mainers came to believe that the winner-take-all voting system stifled their voices because they felt forced to vote for the lesser of two evils – a familiar refrain across the U.S. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Kyle Bailey, campaign manager with the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting. Here, he explains how the newly approved voting process works, and how RCV could reduce negative campaigning, which hit new lows in the recent presidential campaign. [Rush transcript.]

KYLE BAILEY: So with ranked choice voting, you no longer have to vote for the lesser of two evils. You have the freedom to vote for the candidate you like best without worrying you’ll help elect the candidate you like least. So whoever wins is the candidate who does get to a majority. They have to build a coalition beyond their base, reach out, talk to more voters, listen to more voters, ask them to be part of their coalition, so when they do get elected, they also have a mandate to govern, bring people together and get things done. So, an extraordinary grassroots movement that brought people together across the political spectrum to win non-partisan election reform. That is unique in our times, when we’re so divided by party and so many other ways we’re fragmented, that this was something that really brought people together across the political spectrum, because putting more power in the hands of voters, giving voters more voice and more choice in our democracy, isn’t a liberal or conservative idea, it isn’t a Republican or a Democrat thing, it’s something we can all get behind because it improves our political process, and if we want better outcomes, if we want to break some of the dysfunction and gridlock and hyper-partisanship in our politics, we’ve got to change the way we elect our leaders, and that’s what we did in Maine last week, was deciding to adopt rank choice voting and overhaul our election system, so we get better results.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Kyle Bailey, be very explicit, if you would, about how the process works.

KYLE BAILEY: Sure. So with ranked choice voting, you no longer have to choose one candidate when there are three or four or five or more running. You get a chance to rank them from your favorite to your least favorite. So you have a ballot that gives you an opportunity to rank your first choice, and you fill in the oval next to the candidate you like the best. And you get to say, all right, of these other candidates, who is my second choice? Who could I live with? Who could do an okay job? My second choice, etc. You can rank as many or as few as you like. And on election night we add up all the votes to see who is everybody’s first choice. Who do you like the best? Not who is your strategic choice, and voting against someone, but who do you actually think is best for the job. If one candidate gets a majority of first choice rankings, then they win. But if no candidate has an outright majority, then we look to see who’s in last place, and they’re eliminated, and we have a run-off between the remaining candidates. So let’s say we have a three-way race for governor, and no candidate received 50 percent plus 1 in the first round.

So we look to see which candidate’s in last place – they had the smallest number of ballots in their favor. That candidate is eliminated. But if you liked that candidate the best, your vote’s not wasted. We literally look at your ballot to see who was your second choice, pick up your ballot and move it into the pile for the two remaining candidates. So it’s an instant run-off, and if your favorite candidate advances to the instant run-off, your vote continues to count for them. So ranked choice voting works just like actual run-off elections, without bringing voters back to the polls four weeks later, having four more weeks of negative campaigning, without disenfranchising overseas voters including service men and women for whom it’s difficult to participate in an actual run-off election, but can fully participate with ranked choice voting. So it’s simply a better way to conduct run-offs – it’s more efficient, more cost-effective, and enfranchises more voters.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You said you want to educate candidate about how negative campaigning could backfire. How so?

KYLE BAILEY: Well, when you have what we have in Maine right now, what we’ve had for the past 40 years, we’ll have a race with three or four or five candidates. The incentives of the candidates is to energize their base, turn them out to vote, and beat the heck out of their opponents, so they can hold onto their 35 or 37 percent of the votes, and knock their opponents just below that. But with ranked choice voting, you can’t do that; you need to get to 50 percent plus 1. And most of the time, unless you’re wildly popular and a majority of people’s first choice, you’ve got to be able to get first choice and second choice rankings – and in a really crowded race, potentially third choice rankings to build a majority coalition. So you have to reach out and talk to more voters as a candidate. So, both the current and former mayors of Portland, Maine – where ranked choice voting has been used since 2011 – they both won and lost under ranked choice voting, and they talked about their experience running for the legislature years ago and what the experience was like running for mayor of Portland with a ranked choice system. And so, the difference for them was when they were running for the legislature, if they saw a lawn sign for their opponent, they’d skip that door and go to the next one.

But with ranked choice voting running for mayor of Portland, if they saw a lawn sign for their opponent, they’d knock on that door and talk to that voter, and listen to that voter and hear what they had to say and try to find common ground, because if they couldn’t be that voter’s first choice, they wanted to be their second choice, knowing that they might need enough second choice rankings to build a majority coalition. And they also knew if they put out a nasty mail piece or a TV ad that personally attacked one of their opponents, voters who liked that other candidate best would be less likely to rank them as their second choice. So negative campaigning can backfire with a ranked choice system. Rutgers University did a great study in 2014 comparing and contrasting American cities with and without ranked choice voting, and found that voters and candidates in places with ranked choice voting reported, on average, a 40 percent decline in negative campaigning, and that’s not just voters, that’s candidates saying, I got less mud slung at me with a ranked choice voting system. So I think that’s a pretty profound, but hopeful outcome of this system as well.

For more information, visit Yes On 5 – Ranked Choice Voting website at rcvmaine.com.

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