Statehouse Report: Maine lags behind Portland on ranked-choice voting

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When Portland voters went to the polls March 3, they extended ranked-choice voting to City Council and School Board races, with a resounding 81 percent in favor. The city that pioneered RCV in the 2011 mayor’s race has made it part of its permanent political rules.

Statewide, however, the results are mixed.

After March 3, a lot of voters were asking why they weren’t allowed to rank their choices in the presidential primary the same day – a seemingly ideal time to extend the RCV system that’s also used in all other state primaries.

They nearly did have that opportunity. Had Gov. Janet Mills signed LD 1083 into law last Sept. 6, instead of letting it become law without her signature, which delayed its effective date, the state could have run a presidential RCV count, although not without difficulty.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap answered with an unequivocal “yes” when asked whether the tabulation could have been done. The 2016 referendum that authorized RCV statewide was silent on the question of presidential voting; Maine was then using party caucuses. After the conversion to a primary election, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Jackman, introduced LD 1083 last year to use RCV in presidential contests.

Partisan divisions that emerged earlier persisted, but majority Democrats planned to push the bill through, knowing Mills was an RCV supporter.

On the session’s final day, June 20, the House enacted the bill, but it was held up in the Senate after a “surprise” fiscal note was added, too late for the biennial budget. Jackson said, “We were told by the fiscal office there would be no additional cost, but then that changed.”

Dunlap and Jackson conferred, with Jackson saying the $100,000 needed could be found in January. Recalling that conversation, Dunlap said, “We don’t really care when the appropriation is made, as long as we can pay our bills.”

There were other difficulties. The aftermath of the new presidential primary coincides with the run-up of filings for legislative offices, meaning the elections division is out straight. “We even have to schedule bathroom breaks,” Dunlap said.

Nevertheless, had RCV been in effect, they would have found a way.

“The law’s the law,” Dunlap said. “We could call on the town and city clerks for help. They’re important partners in the process.”

Mills’ communications director, Scott Ogden, referred to the governor’s Sept. 6 statement, in which she said there were “serious questions about the cost and logistics of ranked-choice voting, including collecting and transporting ballots from more than 400 towns in the middle of winter.”

Ogden indicated she hadn’t had any second thoughts.

Neither Jackson nor Dunlap spoke to Mills before she made her decision. “By that time, I figured the governor had heard enough and could make her own call,” Jackson said.

Voters, especially Democrats, were left wondering about what might have been. Even though two prominent candidates, Wisconsin Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indian, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, dropped out shortly before the voting, there were still four major choices – former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders,  Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Many expressed regret about having to choose just one – including Jackson, who said, “I really would have liked to have that opportunity.” He added, “I wasn’t a big backer of RCV initially, but the voters have spoken loud and clear.” 

Now, the RCV system that’s twice been backed by voters may face yet a third test, since the Maine Republican Party has announced a bid for a people’s veto referendum on Jackson’s bill.

Unless the GOP succeeds, RCV will apply in the 2024 primary – although that may not be much consolation this time around.

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist and former editor of Maine Times.