The Long Road to Ranked Choice Voting, and What It Might Mean for the Future of American Politics

I was relieved to read yesterday that the Maine Supreme Court finally put an end to the continuing drama of the debate around ranked choice voting in Maine. I know it might seem like a smooth process to those of you outside of the state, since you just hear about it in snippets around the elections, but to those of us inside the state, it’s been a real ordeal getting it passed and (more importantly) actually enacted.

Let’s run down the list of just what went into it.

RCV was first proposed in Maine all the way back in 2001, but it never got the traction it needed until 2016, when 52% of Mainers voted in favor of the Ranked Choice Voting Act. The specific language of the proposal was:

Do you want to allow voters to rank their choices of candidates in elections for U.S. Senate, Congress, Governor, State Senate, and State Representative, and to have ballots counted at the state level in multiple rounds in which last-place candidates are eliminated until a candidate wins by majority?

Due to intricacies of the Maine Constitution (which stipulated that the governor had to be elected by a plurality of votes, which complicated matters), the Maine Supreme Court ended up advising in 2017 that RCV couldn’t be used for voting for Governor and state legislature positions. This didn’t strike down the law: it pointed out an inconsistency with it. To be enacted, either the constitution would have to change or the law would.

The Republican-dominated state legislature ended up voting in 2017 to say that the RCV act would be automatically repealed in 2021 unless the constitution was changed. (I’m simplifying here.) To amend the constitution, you need a supermajority of votes, and good luck getting that in today’s political climate. Thus, this essentially repealed the RCV act.

However, in Maine you can override the state legislature through the use of a People’s Veto. This happened for the RCV act, which suspended the repeal and made it so that RCV could be used for the 2018 primary election. The legislature wasn’t too fond of this veto, and they challenged it in court. The Maine Supreme Court upheld the veto, and the primary election went forward using RCV.

State Republicans still thought the law was bad, however, and so they voted to change their personal primary process to make it so it needed a “plurality” as well, hoping to circumvent the law, claiming the First Amendment to the US Constitution protected their new approach. This didn’t fly in the courts either.

In the June 2018 primary elections, Mainers once again voted to keep RCV for primary elections and federal congressional elections. (54% in favor this time.) RCV was thus used in November, and Poliquin (incumbent Republican representative) lost to Golden (Democrat challenger) in ranked choice vote.

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t sit well with Republicans, who constantly claimed Poliquin was robbed. The vote was challenged by Poliquin in court. The challenge was denied, and Poliquin eventually conceded.

In 2019, the legislature (now controlled by Democrats) voted to expand RCV to presidential and general elections. Republicans (you guessed it) still didn’t like this plan, and so they worked on a people’s veto of their own. Step one of that process is to gather 63,037 signatures by Maine voters indicating they’re in favor of the veto moving forward. Republicans (during the pandemic) gathered 68,000 signatures, give or take, and were ebullient that they’d gotten the job done. (They spent a pretty penny getting it done, too.) However, the Democrat Secretary of State ruled about 7,000 of those signatures were invalid due to being duplicates, being improperly collected, being from non-registered voters, etc. Republicans challenged this action in court, and the courts reinstated enough of those signatures to pass the threshold again, meaning the people’s veto process would move forward, thereby putting RCV for president this year on hold once again.

The Secretary of State countered that some of the reinstated signatures were reinstated incorrectly, because they were collected by people who weren’t registered to vote in the town they were collecting signatures. (Confused yet?) So the courts stopped the veto once again while they reviewed the latest objection. Just yesterday, the courts decided those signatures were, in fact, invalid.

Meaning RCV is back in action for the presidential vote this year. (You can find even more information here and here.)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m very much in favor of RCV. I think the two party system in America has a stranglehold on power, and both Republicans and Democrats do what they can to make sure smaller parties don’t crop up. They paint each other as villains, and then they appeal to the fear of the people that the villainous right/left will be elected, so the only answer is to vote for the virtuous left/right. RCV allows people to vote their conscience without needing to worry that vote will somehow enable someone they definitely do not want to win to win. I’m glad it’s in place in Maine, and I’m glad it’s staying that way. The rhetoric used against it has been misleading at times and downright deceitful at others. I’ll try to assume the best and think those using that rhetoric simply did not fully understand how it operates.

Can or will it catch on elsewhere in the country? I hope so, but seeing how hard it was to be put into play here in Maine, I have no idea how realistic that hope is . . .

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