Could Maine’s new ranked-choice voting change American elections?
The state will be the first to use a ballot that lets voters rank their preferences in Congressional races.
ON A COOL MONDAY EVENING in late September, Kyle Bailey stands at a high-top table at the back of Nonesuch River Brewing in Scarborough, Maine. The brewery’s customers, bundled in flannels and fleece, are talking with friends over burgers or poutine, mostly unaware of Bailey. A tall man with a shaved head and a big voice with a hint of a Georgia accent, the veteran political campaigner presses on, calling out votes.
“Six for the blonde, 11 for the IPA, 4 for the ESB, 6 for the red, and 11 for the stout,” Bailey says, as a colleague jots down the numbers on a whiteboard. This isn’t consumer research on Nonesuch River’s newest beer — it’s a demonstration of ranked-choice voting, the way Maine is starting to run many of its statewide elections.
Since none of the five beers wins a majority of votes in the first tally, Bailey, the campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, eliminates the lowest vote getter, the ESB. But those ballots aren’t tossed away — each voter could rank all five beers. The ballots with the ESB ranked first now get assigned to the beer that was ranked second on each. Bailey counts again, and there’s still no majority winner.
So he eliminates the least popular beer in the second round, and shifts the ballots voting for it, whether as first choice or second, to their next available choice. It takes five rounds, but eventually Bailey declares a winner: the stout.
At the brewery that night, the “beer election” isn’t the thing generating buzz. Despite the dozens of votes, I saw only two tables welcome Bailey’s colleague as he walked around to show the results of the election on his whiteboard. Maybe that’s just because Mainers have been hearing about the initiative since 2014, when the push for ranked-choice voting began.
But much of the public debate in Maine has been acrimonious, with opponents decrying the ranked-choice system as a scam and supporters presenting it as democracy’s salvation. Or at least as something more democratic than the current “first past the post” method that has enabled nine of the state’s last 11 governors to be elected by a plurality (meaning the most votes) rather than a majority (meaning more than 50 percent of votes cast). The technique — enacted by referendum in 2016 — was first used in primary elections here in June. Some two dozen more beer elections are planned in the lead-up to the November elections, when most Maine voters will use ranked-choice voting for the first time. That election will be closely watched, because the approach could offer more than a new way to elect politicians: It could give the United States a way out of our current political environment, routinely described as polarized, insane, broken — pick your pejorative.
IF RANKED-CHOICE VOTING had existed in Maine’s governor’s race in 2010, Paul LePage would probably have lost to Eliot Cutler. LePage, a Republican, drew 37.6 percent of the vote, while Cutler, running as an independent, garnered 35.9 percent. Another 25.5 percent of votes went to three other candidates, plus some write-ins. A Bangor Daily News simulation in 2016 found that a majority of those other voters would have put Cutler as their second choice. Instead, LePage became governor, and was re-elected in 2014, though still only with a plurality: 48 percent of the vote. He beat Democrat Mike Michaud, who got 43.4 percent, with Cutler trailing well behind at just over 8 percent. While LePage evokes strong emotions, Bailey, who served as finance director of Cutler’s 2014 campaign, pushes back on the idea that the ranked-choice voting initiative was fueled by partisan dislike of LePage or support for independent candidates more generally. His frustration was that voting in Maine had become severed from any policy issues. “We never even got a chance to talk about education or health care,” he says of his work for Cutler. “The campaign was defined entirely by questions of spoilers and vote splitting and people saying, ‘Well, I don’t want to waste my vote [on Cutler].’ ”
Votes aren’t wasted in ranked-choice elections. Voters aren’t required to rank more than their first choice, and if a voter chooses to rank multiple candidates, that citizen is not casting multiple votes — just putting the candidates in the order they want their vote to count for. If you rank a low-polling candidate first as a matter of conscience, and the candidate proves to be the lowest vote-getter, your vote can roll over to your next favorite candidate.
That idea galvanized Dick Woodbury, who as an independent candidate won two terms in the Maine state Senate from 2010 to 2014, and Cara Brown McCormick, a Portland-based political consultant with a national client list that leans Democrat but includes Maine’s independent Senator Angus King. Woodbury and McCormick were affiliated with the 2014 Cutler campaign, and both were frustrated that the only issue anyone seemed to want to discuss was the potential splitting of the vote. Since working on King’s campaign in 2012, McCormick has looked for ways to pry open the two-party grasp on our political system. Woodbury — an economist by training — had as a state senator introduced a bill to bring ranked-choice voting to Maine (it failed) and joined a working group organized by the League of Women Voters to suggest improvements to the electoral system. To him, 2014’s governor’s race crystallized the need for ranked-choice voting. “It was a window of opportunity. But the League wasn’t ready to jump on a [ranked-choice voting] referendum. So I did,” he says over coffee at Clayton’s Cafe & Bakery in Yarmouth, Maine.
In the waning months of the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, Woodbury and McCormick formed the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting — a nonpartisan, caffeine-powered, grass-roots effort to change the way Maine citizens elect their representatives. Ranked-choice voting “is the most stunningly right idea that exists, at this moment in time,” McCormick says. “Partisan politics are killing the country and I think we need to open up the system to more competition.”
Their long-shot referendum passed in 2016, 52 percent to 48 percent, and officially became law on January 7, 2017. Four days later, McCormick says, she realized, “Oh my God. [Maine’s legislators] are going to try to repeal our law.” That October, a special late-night session of the Maine House and Senate was convened specifically to vote on not implementing ranked-choice voting until 2021, and then only if the state’s constitution was amended to allow it. McCormick, who watched the vote from the State House balcony, was stunned to see legislators simply dismiss voters. “We weren’t going to let them get away with it,” she says, a sentiment echoed by thousands who’d collected signatures and canvassed and made calls for the referendum. Working in the dead of Maine’s winter, volunteers collected 80,000 signatures in 88 days, with people like Cushing Samp standing at the grocery store at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, keeping her pen in her glove so the ink wouldn’t freeze before skiers could sign. They got a second ranked-choice voting referendum on the ballot in June. Their so-called People’s Veto received 54 percent of the vote. So come November 6, Maine will be the first state in the country to use ranked-choice voting to elect candidates for the US Senate and House.
Maine’s population may be among the most rural and oldest in the country, with a strong traditiion of independent voting, but the general dissatisfaction with the political system that propelled the state’s ranked-choice voting referendum is widespread. According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of Americans say that “significant changes” are needed to the fundamental “design and structure” of government to make it work for current times. Which is why democracy activists across the country have been watching the Pine Tree state’s voting revamp.
“What happened in Maine is huge, it’s huge,” says Jeanne Massey, the executive director of FairVote Minnesota. “Elected officials tended to dismiss the power of this reform if it remained local. They’d let cities do what they wanted to do. But now that Maine is using it statewide, I expect conversations to be happening among legislators in different states. And most importantly, it gives voters and grass-roots organizations like ours hope that progress is around the corner.”
“HOW MANY OF YOU remember the 2000 presidential election?” asks Greg Dennis, policy and research director for Voter Choice Massachusetts. His audience, a dozen mostly gray-haired Rotarians at their weekly lunch at the Holiday Inn in Somerville, look up from their Caesar salads and nod. Larger-than-life portraits of Red Sox greats line the walls, and one can almost see Ted Williams, who endorsed George W. Bush, grimace as Dennis recounts Bush’s 537-vote victory over Gore in Florida. That almost statistically implausible difference sullied Ralph Nader’s reputation, at least among Democrats, since Nader, the Green Party candidate, pulled 97,421 votes in the state, likely throwing Florida’s electoral votes to Bush and making him president even though he lost the popular vote nationwide. But what if Nader voters had been able to rank their preferences? “In a democracy we should be inviting more voices, more choices, more ideas into our elections,” says Dennis. “We should fix the system. It’s the system that fails to guarantee a majority winner.”
Dennis notes that the ranked-choice approach would yield clear victors in a race like last month’s Massachusetts Third District Democratic primary, where 10 candidates were vying for Nikki Tsongas’s seat. While Lori Trahan won, she received only 21.7 percent of the vote, just two-tenths of a percent more than the runner-up. Three other candidates won around 15 percent of the vote. Ranked-choice voting would have meant the Democratic Party knew, definitively, which candidate had the most support.
Dennis is following the same unglamorous path that Kyle Bailey did for years in Maine — building support through visits to churches, farmers’ markets, Rotary Clubs, and pretty much anywhere that would have him. It’s been in some ways an even longer haul — Voter Choice Massachusetts launched in 2009, hoping to get an initiative onto the ballot. It got no momentum until after the 2016 election, when Maine adopted ranked-choice voting and Donald Trump was elected president, says cofounder and executive director Adam Friedman, a software engineer and entrepreneur. Two days after the election, he invited the 200 people on the Voter Choice Massachusetts list to a strategy meeting. Thirty people crowded into his office on Beacon Street, across from the State House, and another two dozen dialed in.
Voter Choice Massachusetts now has 21,000 names on its supporter list and nine chapters around the state, which Friedman says makes Massachusetts the biggest hotbed of ranked-choice voting after Maine. In 2017, 15 legislators, led by state Representative Jay Kaufman of Lexington, who is retiring, signed onto a bill to adopt ranked-choice voting statewide. It went nowhere (as did two other bills that would make it easier for towns and cities to adopt ranked-choice voting for local elections). Friedman is working to line up new sponsors in the Legislature and says that if the idea doesn’t get traction in 2019, Voter Choice will mobilize to get a referendum on the ballot in 2020.
Maine’s voter rebellion has rippled far beyond New England. Bailey says he’s been contacted by grass-roots organizers from 25 states. Last spring, Utah said it would pilot ranked-choice voting, allowing cities to opt-in for the 2019 municipal elections. In Minnesota, three cities have adopted ranked-choice voting and another half dozen are discussing it. Massey, the Minnesota voting activist, wants to see her state adopt the method statewide, although she can’t run a ballot initiative because the state doesn’t allow for citizen referendums. Still, she’s excited about its potential to spur civic engagement. “It is,” says Massey, “the single most significant and transformative reform of our generation.”
RANKED-CHOICE VOTING MAY sound like some newfangled, untested idea, but it’s been around since the 1850s, when it was created in England to allow for multi-winner elections (think city councils and school boards). In 1871, an MIT professor named William Ware adapted the English system for use in single-winner elections, like the beer election example at Nonesuch, though in the United States it has mostly been used for municipal elections. Ohio began using the system in 1915, and Massachusetts in 1940, when Cambridge adopted it to elect its City Council and School Committee. By 1947, Massachusetts had more cities using ranked-choice voting — seven — than any other state. Cold War concerns that it could be used to let Communists get elected caused all of them except Cambridge to drop the method. (Amherst adopted the system this year.)
Opponents of the method focus their criticisms on the three Cs, saying it’s confusing, costly, and too radical a change. But the beer election model seems fairly simple, and while Maine’s secretary of state initially estimated that it would cost as much as $1.5 million to run the June primary and November general election using ranked-choice voting, the June vote cost $360,000, just $110,000 more than a traditional primary. As for the winner-take-all system Americans are accustomed to, nothing in our Constitution requires it. “The framers didn’t establish any electoral system whatsoever,” says Rob Richie, the chief executive and cofounder of FairVote, a nonprofit advocate for electoral reforms to make the system more accountable and representative.
How we vote isn’t the only aspect of our democratic system that we tend to assume was written in stone. The Founding Fathers also didn’t mandate the single-member congressional districts states almost exclusively use today. In fact, most of the original 13 states started out with multi-member districts — larger geographic areas represented by multiple people — or representatives elected “at large.” It was Congress that mandated the use of single-member districts — in 1967. In other words, our democracy remains a work in progress.
Or perhaps regress. In 2017, Congress passed 50 percent fewer bills than it did in 1947, according to the Brookings Institute. Larry Diamond, a political science professor at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, who has written extensively about problems such as our ever-widening partisan gap and the rise in incivility and dysfunction, blames the electoral system. Another problem: 85 percent of America’s congressional districts, home to about 30 percent of the US population, or 89 million people, have been so radically gerrymandered that they are essentially controlled by one party.
In that context, the general elections are relatively meaningless; it’s the primaries that matter. These draw fewer voters than general elections, but more fervent ones, likely to choose ideologically pure candidates. Diamond sees ranked-choice voting as one of the most promising fixes for our electoral process.
Most advocates of election reform are similarly positive about ranked-choice voting. But they don’t agree on the best way forward. “I’m a big supporter of ranked-choice voting,” says Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School. “But I think one of the mistakes they’ve made is that they pursued it from the bottom up when a much better strategy is to do it from the top down.” In other words, start with the presidential race.
For one thing, he says an argument can be made that three of the last four presidents were elected because third-party candidacies drew enough votes to sway the result. He says if Jill Stein had not run, her voters would likely have gone for Hillary Clinton, tipping key states like Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin away from Trump. Nader obviously helped George W. Bush win Florida, and Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign probably cost Bush’s father a second term. A straight ranked-choice vote would have captured the will of the majority of voters in those cases, but Lessig is after bigger game, too — the Electoral College — which also works on a winner-take-all system in most states, and can’t be fixed by ranked-choice voting. A candidate who wins a state even by a single vote walks away with all of that state’s delegates. “If you are a Republican voting for president in Massachusetts, your vote doesn’t count,” Lessig says. “If you are a Democrat in Montana, your vote doesn’t count.”
In 2016, Lessig founded Equal Citizens, a nonprofit focused on multiple democratic reforms. In early 2018, the organization filed suit against four states — Massachusetts, Texas, California, and South Carolina (two red, two blue) — to end their winner-take-all systems, contending that they violate the principle of one person, one vote. Superstar attorney David Boies argued the case in Boston’s federal district court in August, though the judge had not issued a ruling by press time. The group lost in California and is appealing. It’s a long shot, but Lessig is hoping to reach the Supreme Court before the 2020 election.
FairVote’s Richie predicts, perhaps optimistically, that ranked-choice voting could become the national norm within a decade. And he has pushed for combining the new voting scheme with a shift to multi-member districts. “Single-member districts are highly prone to manipulation,” he says, arguing that technology allows political parties and politicians to game the system too well. Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern, who represents the Second Congressional District, cosponsored the Fair Representation Act in the House in June 2017. Drafted with help from FairVote, it includes both reforms.
If the Fair Representation Act were law, it would mean a dramatic change for Massachusetts. The state last elected a Republican representative to Congress in 1993, but FairVote estimates that 40 percent of Massachusetts voters are Republican and in a Fair Representation world, our caucus would be six Democrats and three Republicans.
Friedman, of Voter Choice Massachusetts, views all federal reforms as dead on arrival, saying that “Congress is just too gridlocked.” But Richie is “optimistic that the conversation is going to start building in Congress.” He expects an updated Fair Representation Act to be introduced in 2019.
Other parts of the electoral system are also under pressure to change. Over a beer flight at Nonesuch Brewing, McCormick tells me about her other change effort, Level the Playing Field. In 2015, the group sued the Federal Election Commission to make it open the presidential debate stage to independent candidates. The suit focuses on the commission’s requirement, adopted in 2000, that a candidate must poll at or above 15 percent in five polls in the seven weeks leading up to the debate. McCormick says this rule allows a small group of people to essentially limit our choices for president to candidates affiliated with the two major parties. She calls it undemocratic and un-American. “For the rest of your life,” she tells me, “for the rest of my life, for the rest of my kids’ lives, and their kids’ lives, you will never have an independent in the debates as long as that rule is in place.”
We may mock the debates, but McCormick argues that opening the stage to more voices would make our electoral system more reflective of a disparate electorate, and more responsive to it. Polls show 36 percent of Americans are not proud of how our democracy works. Its gears have rusted. We’re being outstripped, too, as many countries already use variations of the reforms that we are for the most part only contemplating (Ireland and Australia both use ranked-choice voting extensively and have for decades). “US advisers helping certain countries to democratize never recommend the US system,” notes FairVote’s Richie.
So what can we expect when the citizens of Maine use ranked-choice voting for the first time in a general election? The race in Maine’s First District could be telling. It’s a reliably Democratic congressional district, but incumbent Chellie Pingree faces both a Republican and a Democrat-turned-independent, and it’s unlikely but possible she could lose. And the race for governor? It is a four-candidate toss-up, the kind of race that got Maine voters fired up about ranked-choice voting in the first place. But Maine’s politicians did stave off part of the force of the People’s Veto. They were able to argue that wording in the Maine Constitution requiring state representatives to be chosen “by a plurality” — in other words, the most votes even if they merely represent the biggest minority of voters — means that while primaries for state office can be conducted using ranked-choice voting, general elections can’t, because the approach doesn’t identify a winner until a candidate has majority support.
That distinction may come as a shock to Maine voters, a majority of whom will likely wake up November 7 to a governor who was not their first or even second choice. Samantha Bassett, a federal employee who moved to Maine six years ago, showed up at another beer election at the Island Dog Brewery in South Portland in late September. She went partly for the pumpkin saison beer, but also to support the cause. “Most people,” she says, “think we’ve already approved ranked-choice voting, and they’ve moved on. But when they realize that we aren’t using it for the governor’s race, you’re going to see the same anger and enthusiasm that drove the first two initiatives.”
Will Maine’s citizens rise up a third time, to force a change in the state’s constitution to allow all state elections to be run using ranked choice? Maybe. As McCormick puts it: “We’ve beaten all of the odds before.”