Maine voters, when they consider Question 5 on the ballot for November, will be faced with a proposal that is complicated and eventually could force a constitutional confrontation. Those are reasons enough to reject An Act to Establish Ranked-choice Voting.
The proposal would create a process for casting and tabulating votes for U.S. senator, U.S. representative, governor, state senator and state representative in which voters would rank candidates in order of preference. The vote tabulation would proceed in rounds in which a last-place candidate would be declared defeated and the votes of those who preferred the eliminated candidate — or candidates — then would be redistributed according to those voters’ second-ranked choices until a candidate receiving the most votes in the final round is elected.
The intention of ranked-choice voting is to assure that the elected candidate receives a majority of the votes cast in the election. But an opinion provided earlier this year by Attorney General Janet Mills suggests that, for several reasons, the new process would be in conflict with Maine’s Constitution. Mills finds that the Constitution makes no provisions relating to the elections for U.S. House or Senate. Further, the Constitution provides that winners of elections for governor and Maine House and Senate are determined by “a plurality of all votes returned,” rather than by a majority vote. In addition, the Constitution directs that the counting of ballots be performed by local elections officials in each municipality, never contemplating that a centralized, computer-driven process that would be necessary at the state level under ranked-choice voting.
Ranked voting could have the effect of creating, for the first time in Maine history, a mechanism for voting against a political candidate. Don’t like the candidate? Encourage voters to place that candidate at the bottom of their preference. Whatever happened to “May the best person win”?
Some will argue that the new process would provide more voice, more choice and more power to voters. But it’s not clear that voters — who tend to want the process to be as easy as possible — would welcome the idea of ranking candidates in order of preference. Nor does it seem clear, from the statutory language involved, whether failure to complete the rankings for a particular office would render that ballot unacceptable.
No other state currently uses ranked-choice voting, and at municipal government levels where the process has been used, there are circumstances in which voter turnout has declined, rather than increased — certainly not the desired result.
The concept that Maine’s state and/or federal office holders ought to be elected by a majority, rather than a plurality, may be worthy of consideration. But if citizens are committed to the idea, the first step should be a Constitutional amendment to establish such a requirement.
Question 5 puts the cart before the horse and ought to be rejected by voters on Nov. 8.