A solution in search of a problem

In November 2016, Maine voters passed the citizen initiative concerning ranked choice voting (RCV) as an alternative to our existing plurality voting system for state and federal elections. The existing system, affirmed in Maine’s Constitution since 1847, stipulates that the candidate with the most votes prevails. RCV would require a majority vote to decide an election — more than 50 percent of the votes cast.

No other state in America employs RCV and only 11 cities across the country use it.

Since that November 2016 vote, RCV has been found unconstitutional in the opinion of the Maine Supreme Court. Its enactment has been deferred by the Legislature until 2021, providing time for the constitutionality question issue to be settled by an amendment to the Constitution.

Maine’s secretary of state has adamantly opposed an RCV voting process that will require two ballots — one form for state elections, another ballot with different voting methodology for federal elections.

The RCV voting process requires that all ballots be centrally tabulated so that first, second and third choice selections can be fed into an algorithm that will determine who wins. The Maine State Police will need to secure hard drives, USB drives or whatever medium is utilized, and deliver same to the state’s counting headquarters — essentially the Secretary of State’s Office — for tabulation. All that travel from Biddeford, Madawaska, Calais, Jackman and points in between will delay tabulation for hours, well into the next day. Voters won’t know the winners for unknown intervals, while candidate challenges and potential recounts could extend the voting process for days. The potential for legal challenges is immense. And delays in reporting results will erode the public’s confidence in the election process.

All this leaves RCV proponents undeterred in their efforts to upset 170 years of historical precedent in Maine. The effort to replace the existing simple and effective process moves forward. RCV proponents are gathering signatures to override the Legislature’s act with a people’s veto. If sufficient signatures are obtained by Feb. 2, the secretary of state will be forced to implement RCV balloting for the primary elections this June.

In the last 25-years, Maine has had two notable ballot-tampering cases involving centralized collection. Each case undermined voter trust and faith in a system already wrought with reservations and polarization. Former House Speaker John Martin’s aide was caught red-handed in 1992 stuffing “secure” recount ballot boxes in Augusta.

Five years ago, a month-long investigation was required to settle a Portland Senate race when ballots were added to the “secure” recall totals.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has decried the potential cost of RCV voting, saying it will add over $1.5 million to each election cycle, while stating that “there’s more moving parts in this whole situation than you’d find in a Rube Goldberg machine.” Sen. Brian Langley of Ellsworth has gone on record as stating that, “the confusion factor is really important. The current system works. I still have concerns about the way those votes will be tallied and reported. There’s a lot of unknowns about the costs of that [RCV].”

There is no doubt that the electorate is vastly changed from decades ago, as the two parties are no longer the largest voting blocs here, or, across the country. Democrats in Maine are 31.9 percent of political registrations, according to the Maine Division of Elections. Republicans are 26.9 percent. Unenrolled voters are by far the largest voting contingent at 36.5 percent.

Advocates for voting changes have chosen to bypass a more obvious, less expensive, more responsible voting alternative that returns voting power to the majority of voters who want to be engaged in elections: Let unenrolled voters participate in primary elections. All unenrolled voters should be able to go to their local polling place during primary elections, select a Republican, Democrat, Green Independent — whichever party — ballot and cast a vote for the candidate they would prefer to represent their interests. No expensive ballot gathering, no delays in vote counting, less opportunity for fraud and less potential for costly recounts and legal actions — primary voting for all creates more citizen engagement rather than narrowing the field to partisan candidates in the general election from the dominant parties.

RCV is a solution looking for a problem. Mainers should look past this process and work to make primary and general election voting more representative.

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