Ranked choice voting backers push for a veto



ELLSWORTH — If a citizens’ veto effort is successful, Maine voters could be deciding at the June primaries whether to repeal a bill that delays until 2021 implementation of ranked choice voting (RCV).

The catch: Voters would use RCV to cast votes in all of the primary races in that June primary.

If the people’s veto is successful, it will allow Maine voters to use the ranking system for federal elections — U.S. House and Senate — but not state-level races during the general elections.

Supporters of RCV turned to a people’s veto after lawmakers approved the delay bill in October. A people’s veto is when Maine voters overturn a law passed by the legislature. If campaigners can gather 61,123 signatures by Feb. 2, the issue of whether to repeal the delay bill will go to Maine voters.

The number of signatures required is 10 percent of the ballots cast in the last gubernatorial election — in this case, 2014. The Feb. 2 deadline is 90 days from the moment of the Legislature’s adjournment after they passed the bill in question.

The people’s veto effort alone puts the legislature’s delaying bill on ice. That means RCV, which was approved by voters in the 2016 election, would have to be implemented for counting June’s ballot, if they gather the required number of signatures.

For supporters of RCV, a driving force is the determination to hold legislators accountable for what RCV advocates see as a failure to follow the will of Maine’s voters.

Nicole Grohoski, an Ellsworth-based volunteer collecting signatures for the veto effort, said the issue is even clear to children. A friend’s young son asked her why she bothered voting if what she votes for doesn’t happen, she said.

Dick Woodbury, a former state representative and senator from Yarmouth, is the chairman of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting. That committee oversaw the 2016 campaign.

Woodbury said that when RCV was voted in, he felt the job was done. He is now organizing the people’s veto.

“We thought when we won the election that we’d close down the committee,” Woodbury said, laughing. But after the repeal, he realized they’d have another political battle to fight. “We’re scrambling as hard as we can to mobilize a base.”

Their efforts already have proved fruitful. According to former Democratic State Sen. Dennis Damon, a Trenton-based member of Woodbury’s committee, the campaign gathered half of the signatures it needs on the day of last month’s election alone. According to various members of the campaign, the group has about 1,600 volunteers across the state working to collect signatures.

The reasoning behind the legislators’ bill delaying implementation of RCV involves the question of constitutionality, as well as logistical concerns about implementation of a new voting system in a largely rural state.

The Maine Constitution defines a state elections winner as the candidate who receives a plurality of the votes cast, meaning the person with the largest number of votes, period, prevails. RCV, by contrast, requires a candidate to garner more than 50 percent of the vote, or a majority.

But this constitutional conundrum only applies to state-level elections. Therefore, the people’s veto would leave intact the portion of the delay bill pertaining to state elections, such as governor or state representative, in order not to confront concerns that RCV is unconstitutional in Maine.

Under the people’s veto, the Legislature would have until 2021 to pass an amendment to the state constitution changing “plurality” to “majority,” resolving the issue for state elections. But that action would require two-thirds support from the Legislature, and so far there aren’t enough votes for that change.

The logistics of implementation are another major concern of RCV skeptics.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, in a wide-ranging phone interview, argued that his office has taken extensive steps to plan for the implementation of RCV, but said it will cost the state a lot of money and will be difficult to administer.

Supporters of RCV, by contrast, argue that Dunlap has had a lot of time to prepare. Kyle Bailey, a campaign manager for the people’s veto effort, said in a statement that Dunlap’s office issued a report on RCV in 2013.

“The Secretary of State’s Office is unquestionably capable of completing the implementation process in a period even shorter than the current time frame ahead of the June 2018 primary elections,” Bailey said. “Secretary Dunlap and his team will have had 19 months to implement Ranked Choice Voting in addition to years of research and planning.”

A spokeswoman from Dunlap’s office said the Secretary of State team has been preparing for RCV and is ready to implement it if the people’s veto is successful.

Dunlap said it will cost about $1.5 million for the state to shift from the current system to RCV. Typically, elections cost the state $160,000, or slightly more, depending on the number of questions. If the people’s veto is successful, Dunlap’s office will have to get an emergency appropriation of funds from the Legislature for the June election.

That’s because about 47 percent of Maine’s towns, he said, have fewer than 1,000 voters and count ballots by hand. Ranked choice, with a complicated formula that can only be tabulated statewide instead of by individual towns, could not be counted by hand by town clerks.

Again, RCV supporters see these numbers differently. They say 91 percent of Maine’s votes in the last election were counted in municipalities that used electronic tabulators.

In any case, the state would likely need to lease high-speed tabulators to municipalities that count their votes by hand, sending the machines to central locations for counting. Then, Dunlap said, that data would have to be passed along to the state for analysis.

“It basically has to be a statewide collection, so you’d have to find some way to get USB drives to one place, get ballots for one place, and, you know, hopefully within 24 to 48 hours, you could run an algorithm that tells you exactly how the rankings played out,” Dunlap said.

In response to various questions about how RCV would work, Dunlap said the issue has a lot of confusing components.

“I’ve gotten some legislators asking some of the same questions, because there’s more moving parts in this whole situation than you’d find in a Rube Goldberg machine,” he said.

Another logistical concern is that RCV is complicated in a way that won’t be intuitive to voters. Voters have normally picked one candidate for each office. RCV has voters ranking candidates from first to last.

If the first-choice votes don’t yield a majority winner, the lowest vote-earner is eliminated and the second-choice votes are tallied. These two steps repeat until someone earns more than 50 percent of the vote.

But ensuring that Mainers understand that formula when they go to the polls means the Secretary of State’s Office has to put together educational materials on the process.

For State Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County), that confusion factor is really important. The current system, he said, works.

“I just have my view that it really makes the voting process much more complicated with several ballots. I still have concerns about the way those votes will be tallied and reported,” Langley said. “There’s a lot of unknowns about the costs of that.”

But proponents of RCV reject that the system is too confusing. Bailey said they see the voting method as both more transparent and accurate as to the will of the voters.

They point to multiple other parts of the country and world that have employed the voting system, such as North Carolina, Minneapolis and Australia.

Dunlap, on the other hand, gets upset at the comparisons.

“That’s not relevant,” he said. “That is absolutely, categorically irrelevant. And we’ve actually gotten a little bit aggressive about this, because they keep trotting out Minnesota and North Carolina, and it’s a completely different situation.

“They ran their elections much differently, using different mechanisms. And the one thing I have gotten more than a little annoyed about is the advocates keep jumping up and down and telling me how simple this is.”

But for those out collecting signatures, there’s a sense that people really want to see the new voting system enacted across the state.

Grohoski, who has been collecting signatures in Hancock County, said people have been seeking her out in order to support the people’s veto.

“Every day I go out, people say, ‘Please, I want to sign that. I’ve been looking to sign that,’” Grohoski said.

Woodbury said he’s confident his team will get the signatures and the measure will pass on the ballot for a second time.

“I perhaps get overly optimistic over what this will do,” he said. “I think for whatever bizarre process of history … Maine is going to potentially be able to model what post-partisan politics could look like.”

Jack Dodson
Jack Dodson began working for The Ellsworth American in mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.