By Patrick R. Potyondy
In a situation the Portland Press Herald called a “strange set of circumstances,” Maine voters passed a popular referendum during Tuesday's election that repealed a recent state law that would have delayed the use of ranked choice voting (RCV).
If you think that sounds a little confusing, it’s because it is. Essentially, if a voter marked “yes” on the ballot question (details on that in a second), they voted to uphold statewide ranked choice voting.
Now, it might make sense to hold that vote before actually using the ranked choice voting method in a statewide election. In fact, the state tried that, back in 2016 when voters already approved the use of ranked choice voting.
But as it turns out, the Pine Tree State made it a little more complicated via court challenges and now with this latest referendum. And so on Tuesday, Maine became the first state to use RCV at the state level (several American cities have utilized RCV for years). Still, it won’t be used in every election. Maine will use ranked choice voting for all primaries and federal elections, not for all state elections unless the state constitution is amended.
And you're not alone if you’re not sure what RCV is. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Just like how we often rank things in real life—my spouse tells me to pick up some strawberry ice cream if the store is out of raspberry, and vanilla if it’s also out of strawberry. In RCV, each voter ranks all or some of the candidates in order of their preference. It's how Oscar voters make their choices, too—and voters in Australia,
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the total vote in the first round, then the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and a second round begins. In the second round, the voters who voted for the now-eliminated candidate have their second choice counted while everyone else’s first choice is counted the same. This process repeats until a candidate wins a majority.
Nationally, this system has been gaining some traction recently. Longtime New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks hailed RCV as part of “One Reform to Save America.” It remains a minor legislative trend in the states, however. In 2018, legislators introduced bills to permit some type of RCV in 19 states (to find details, see NCSL’s election legislation database). Georgia introduced a bill for only overseas and military voters, and only one state, Utah, enacted a bill, to allow localities to run RCV pilots. And three states introduced legislation to prohibit RCV, with Maine as one of them.
Reformers have worked hard to explain RCV’s benefits. Advocacy groups such as the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center and FairVote have pushed for its adoption across the nation. Several cities use RCV, but in the case of San Francisco, which recently switched to the method, The Atlantic mentions RCV as a reason why the mayoral election is still too close to call a week after Election Day. With that said, the article also notes how two candidates essentially endorsed one another, encouraging voters to make each other their first and second choices. This sort of coalition-building is held up by advocates as one benefit of RCV (for example, see David Brooks’ column above).
All of this aside, Maine voters were tasked with deciphering the complex wording of the question as it appeared on the ballot:
Do you want to reject the parts of a new law that would delay the use of ranked-choice voting in the election of candidates for any state or federal office until 2022, and then retain the method only if the constitution is amended by December 1, 2021, to allow ranked-choice voting for candidates in state elections?
Under the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, which scores a text’s reading difficulty, Maine’s question scores a whopping 26. A score of 8 would mean that a majority of 8th graders could understand the text. Eight also happens to be about the grade level that a majority of Americans can read.
Maybe, in the end, voting on a method while testing it out for the first time helped voters decide. In any case, ranked choice voting just took a large step forward.
Patrick Potyondy is a Mellon-ACLS public fellow and a legislative policy specialist with NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.