ELLSWORTH — A three-and-a-half-year fight to bring ranked choice voting to Maine achieved a significant milestone Tuesday as Maine voters approved a statewide referendum to preserve the system.
While results are still unofficial, with about 70 percent of precincts reporting as of early Wednesday morning, there were a total of 116,241 “yes” votes on the measure to proceed with ranked choice voting and a total of 97,683 “no” votes, according to unofficial results published in the Portland Press Herald.
The measure carried in Hancock County by a substantial margin. On Wednesday, with all but one of 37 municipalities (Osborn) reporting, voters approved ranked choice voting with 8,098 voting “yes” and 5,567 voting “no.”
That approval didn’t come easily. The ballot question prepared by the office of Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap left many voters unsure whether a “yes” or “no” vote on the ballot was actually a yes or no vote on whether to continue ranked choice voting in Maine elections.
“A lot of people knew what they wanted but they were confused by the wording of the question,” Blue Hill Town Clerk Etta Perkins said Wednesday morning.
One consequence of that confusion was an unusually high number of spoiled ballots — 40 in Blue Hill alone, where 806 voters cast ballots in the statewide referendum. That was 98 more than the total number of votes cast in the Democratic and Republican primary elections for governor and 328 more than the 478 Democrats who voted in the party primary election for a candidate to face Rep. Bruce Poliquin in the November election for the 2nd District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“There were a lot of mistakes made,” Perkins said. “People double-checked on ranked choice.”
The referendum question also brought out large numbers of unenrolled voters — not registered as either a Democrat or a Republican — to the polls. The unexpected turnout coupled with the large number of spoiled ballots left Blue Hill on the verge of running out of printed ballots.
The town asked permission from the Secretary of State’s Office to use photocopies and count them as absentee ballots, but finished the night with 13 unused printed ballots still on hand.
Like Blue Hill, Lamoine also had to ask permission to use photocopied ballots and wound up counting 13 of the copies by hand.
“We had higher than expected turnout,” Assistant Town Clerk Stu Marckoon said Wednesday morning. “Usually there’s a lull during the day, but there were no lulls yesterday.”
It wasn’t just the large number of voters who turned out for the primary elections — 238 Democrats and 209 Republicans — but the additional 76 voters who cast ballots — 523 in all in the ranked choice voting referendum — that caused problems for Lamoine election authorities, who put in a 15-hour day on Tuesday.
“There were a lot more spoiled ballots than I’ve ever seen,” Marckoon said.
Some of the spoiled ballots were cast in the Democratic primary, which used ranked choice to choose among seven candidates for the gubernatorial race and three candidates for the House of Representatives seat. Many spoiled ballots, though, came from the referendum vote.
“The ballot was about as clear as mud on what “yes” and “no” meant on ranked choice voting,” Marckoon said.
In Ellsworth’s four election wards, turnout was “larger than expected,” but “ranked choice voting was not an issue,” City Clerk Heidi Grindle said Wednesday.
The heavy turnout, especially in the Democratic primary, had Ellsworth election officials “a little panicked” about whether they might run out of ballots. In the end, that wasn’t a problem.
The ranked choice voting referendum also proved not to be a problem.
“We weren’t getting bombarded” with questions about the referendum question, Grindle said. Voters “used the resources from the media” and elsewhere to familiarize themselves with the issue.
“People were pretty comfortable,” she said.
Assuming the vote holds up, Maine would become the first state in the nation to approve the use of ranked choice voting in certain statewide elections. Ranked choice only comes into play when there are more than two candidates for an elected position.
With the passage of referendum, ranked choice voting will be used in primary elections for governor, state senator, state representative, U.S. senator and U.S. representative.
Ranked choice also will be used in general elections for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
In the November 2016 general election, Maine voters approved ranked choice voting for use in all statewide elections.
In May 2017, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that ranked choice voting violated the state Constitution and could not be used in general elections for governor or other elected state offices. Five months later, the Legislature repealed the ranked choice voting law.
Earlier this year, supporters of ranked choice voting collected enough signatures — more than 80,000 in all — to have the ranked choice voting question placed on Tuesday’s ballot.
In a series of decisions this spring, the Supreme Judicial Court cleared the way for ranked choice voting to be used in primary elections for statewide and federal office.