Ranked choice voting costs questioned

At issue:

Majority: More than 50 percent of the vote.

Plurality: The highest count of votes, regardless of proportion.

Maine’s Constitution calls for a “plurality” in state elections. Ranked choice requires a “majority.”

ELLSWORTH — Among the issues involved in the statewide discussion about shifting Maine elections to ranked choice voting (RCV) is a question about how much money the new system would cost.

As a citizen-led initiative to repeal a law delaying implementation of RCV enters its final phase of signature-gathering, officials in Augusta are attempting to determine what that effort might mean for them. If organizers are successful, RCV will be used during the June 2018 primary elections.

During those primaries, Maine voters will be deciding whether RCV should be delayed.

According to Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, RCV could cost up to $1.5 million over the next two years, on top of the regular bill for elections. Primaries typically cost the state $250,000.

But supporters of RCV dispute that claim, saying the actual additional cost would be “negligible.”

Primaries and referendums between 2014 and 2016 cost the state $797,577.81.

RCV is a voting system that would allow ballot-casters to rank the candidates they support in order of preference. In each round of tallying, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and the next choices are added in for the remaining candidates. This process repeats until one person receives 50 percent or more of the vote.

Maine voters approved RCV during the 2016 election. In October, legislators passed a law during a special session that delays implementation to 2021, citing concerns that the new system requires a majority winner while the Maine Constitution declares a winner by plurality.

In a December interview with The American, Dunlap emphasized logistical concerns with shifting the state’s elections to RCV. In previous elections, he said, much of the costs are borne by towns.

“It’s the towns that have their staff on call all day long,” Dunlap said. “They set up the polling places. Sometimes they rent space to do that. What we’re responsible for, really, is the printing and distribution of ballots.”

RCV would mean no towns in Maine could count their ballots by hand. Therefore, Dunlap said, the state would have to arrange for electronic voting machines to be sent to areas that traditionally tabulate elections manually.

A budget drawn up by his office allocated $220,000 for that atypical expense.

RCV also means all of Maine’s votes need to be analyzed together. Maine State Police officers would have to transport hard drives to a central location.

For the gas, hard drives and the officers’ time, Dunlap’s team budgeted $160,024.

Efforts to educate voters about the new system, labeled “voter outreach,” were budgeted for $50,000 each for the 2018 primary and general election.

All together, Dunlap’s office accounted for $833,664 to be spent on the June 2018 primary. For this year’s general election, his team budgeted $691,314. Total: $1.5 million.

While some numbers represent one-time costs, state officials say the election budgets associated with RCV will be similar to these estimates every year.

Supporters of RCV see these numbers as exaggerations.

Kyle Bailey, the campaign manager with the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, said in an email that the state already budgets for transportation costs related to centralized tallying.

“It’s no secret that Secretary Dunlap opposes ranked choice voting as a policy, and he has made extreme and contradictory comments about the costs of implementation and the impact of the reform,” Bailey said.

To signal the secretary’s opposition, Bailey pointed to a handful of quotes from Dunlap in news coverage discussing what he sees as the dangers of RCV. In the past, Dunlap has told reporters — including two from The American — that he believes RCV has the possibility of unleashing chaotic protests in Maine if voters don’t believe the results of an election.

State Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County) said he’s less concerned about money than he is about the constitutional issues facing RCV.

But at the same time, he said, the Legislature will have “hard times coming” regarding financial decisions.

“Doubling the cost of the voting process,” Langley said, “collectively, we’re going to be in some trouble in the next biennium in trying to meet the demands of the people’s referendums.”

Langley referred to a funding fight for a Medicaid expansion, approved by Maine voters in November, as an example of how the Legislature is struggling to pay for citizens’ initiatives.

State Rep. Louis Luchini (D-Ellsworth) attributed problems with RCV to how supporters wrote the law in the first place.

The version of RCV presented to Maine voters in 2016, he said, has implementation and constitutional issues.

“If they had written a bill that could have been implemented, this wouldn’t be an issue right now,” Luchini said.

To others, Dunlap’s concerns about the logistical hurdles involved with shifting a statewide election system ring true. Lee Mortimer of Durham, N.C., is an election reform advocate and was a founding member of FairVote. He has studied election reform across the world, and wrote multiple guest columns in Maine newspapers regarding RCV here.

In an interview, he expressed concerns that reform needs to be simple and inexpensive. While he believes in the idea behind RCV, he said, the costs associated help fuel opposition to reform.

“If we’re going to make election reform viable, it’s got to be simple, easy to understand, and a whole lot less expensive,” Mortimer said. “If we don’t do that, it will give the gatekeepers a ready-made justification for resisting reform.”

North Carolina tried RCV in a single race in 2010 — an appellate judge position — but Republicans tweaked the state laws shortly afterward to exclude RCV from all races.

From that experience, he said, he learned that the logistics of an RCV race should be taken seriously.

For supporters of RCV in Maine, though, the concerns about money are overblown. Bailey said the costs are minimal, while the changes they represent are large.

“Maine taxpayers evaluated the costs and benefits of this reform and, despite exaggerated claims by Secretary Dunlap and others, decided that the benefits really outweighed the minimal additional costs,” Bailey said. “Maine people want more voice and more choice in their democracy and they want elections in which they have the freedom to vote their hopes, not their fears.”

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.

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