When cartographer Nicole Grohoski is not making maps or studying for her wilderness first responder test, she is standing outside in freezing temperatures, collecting signatures. Grohoski’s boss accommodates her unpredictable schedule because he too believes in the cause: a new voting system for the state of Maine.
Grohoski resolved to look for an alternative voting system after the gubernatorial election in 2014, when current Republican Governor Paul LePage, who was running against two other candidates, won with 48.2 percent of the vote. For Mainers, a governor without majority support was nothing new: The last time a first-term governor won the majority of votes was in 1966.
“I thought, ‘This seems a little interesting, that we are consistently electing people that don’t have a majority or 50 percent of the vote.” Grohoski told The Politic. “Is there a better way?’”
The 34-year-old did some research and quickly discovered that there were, indeed, alternatives. One option Grohoski came across especially stood out to her: the beginnings of a campaign to implement ranked-choice voting in Maine elections.
In a ranked-choice voting system, as the name suggests, voters rank all candidates. During vote tabulation, first choices are counted, and the candidate who wins the majority of them is the winner. But if no candidate has won a majority of those first votes, the candidate who earned the fewest first choice votes is eliminated, and ballots are adjusted accordingly. If voters put the eliminated candidate first, their second-choice candidate assumes the first place spot on their ballot. The counting process is repeated until a candidate earns the majority of votes.
Word of the proposed voting system quickly spread across Maine. In a 2016 referendum, ranked-choice voting received 52 percent of voter support, a higher share of the vote than Maine’s past governors
But the victory was short-lived. Only several months after the passage of the referendum, Maine’s Supreme Court released an advisory opinion which stated that the voter-approved law was unconstitutional for state general elections. (The Court did not object to the use of ranked-choice voting in federal elections and state primaries.)
Because the Court’s opinion was advisory, not binding, it was up to the Maine Legislature to make the next move. The legislature had three options: to repeal the voter-approved law that would implement ranked-choice voting, to pass a constitutional amendment that would resolve issues that make ranked-choice voting unconstitutional in state general elections, or to implement ranked-choice voting for only federal elections and state primaries.
In October 2017, after much debate, Maine’s Senate voted to delay the law’s implementation until December 2021, at which point the legislatures would repeal it if they still have not passed a constitutional amendment addressing the Court’s legal concerns. Until then, Maine will keep its current voting system.
“People were excited,” Crystal Canney, a spokesperson for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, told The Politic. “It was a clear directive from the people. And then the legislature came in and they tried to take the power away from the people.”
Kyle Bailey, the Campaign Manager of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, called the bill “the ultimate slap in the face from politicians who think they know better than people.” Still, he told The Politic that the bill did not come as a surprise.
“You have politicians making calculated choices about their own political careers,” Bailey said. “For them, that trumps the desires of the people.”
But Mainers were not ready to accept defeat. The state’s constitution granted them another weapon: the “people’s veto.” Proponents of ranked-choice voting had 90 days as of November 6 to get 61,123 signatures from Mainers who wanted to reject the delay-and-repeal law passed by the legislature in October.
“The ‘people’s veto’ gave us an opportunity to come back and say, we do understand what we voted for. We like what we voted for,” Canney said.
In the past several months, Mainers have mobilized. Grohoski said that she and her parents braved subzero temperatures and collected over 1,000 signatures in four counties. In Blue Hill, a wine shop advertises the petition. At the Bal Harbour movie theater, petitioners are on rotation. A band wrote a song about ranked-choice voting and sang it at a brewing company in Southern Maine. Over the phone, a 94-year-old asked volunteers to drive to her house so that she and her husband could sign the petition.
“The grassroots support is like nothing I’ve seen before,” said Bailey, who volunteered for the 2012 same-sex marriage campaign in Maine. He compared the ranked-choice organizing efforts to the marriage equality movement of six years ago. “I venture to say there are more volunteers in this effort than in that one.”
Why does a voting system inspire such overwhelming support? Many proponents believe that ranked-choice voting would give Maine’s many third-party candidates a better chance at getting elected. Ranked-choice voting could eliminate the spoiler effect—when votes for independent party candidates disproportionately benefit a major party candidate. With this system in place, ranked-choice advocates say, voters would be free to pick their first choice candidate without limiting themselves to major-party candidates.
“You should never have to vote for the lesser of two evils when there’s another candidate you really like,” Bailey said. “You should be free to vote your hopes and not your fears.”
Ranked-choice voting might also make campaigns more civil, by incentivizing candidates to reach beyond their base instead of criticizing their opponents. Each candidate will vie to be voters’ second choice, if not their first.
What’s more, supporters contend that ranked-choice voting could lead to more effective governance.
“I think the American public, as well as the Maine people, have taken a hard look at some of the partisanship that’s gone on and how hard it is to get things done,” Canney said. “This is the first step to righting that system.”
Matt Dunlap, the Secretary of State of Maine, who is responsible for certifying the tabulation of election results, is not convinced by these arguments. Like many members of the Maine legislature, Dunlap has concerns about ranked-choice voting.
Dunlap acknowledged the polarization in American politics. In his view, though, the problem is not the voting system, but the people running for office.
“The easy solution is to get better candidates that generate more consensus,” Dunlap told The Politic.
Dunlap called the suggestion that campaigns would become less adversarial “laughable.”
“What’s going to happen is the outside money is going to amplify even more and proxies will crap all over your opponents for you,” he said.
Dunlap claimed the system would be challenging to implement, too. He said that the legislature will likely not approve funding for ranked-choice voting, leaving the states without the machinery to efficiently tabulate votes. Determining election results could take as long as two weeks.
“I apologize if it sounds like I’m deadly opposed to ranked-choice voting, but these are the things that nobody seems to think about. I wish people would stop saying how easy it is. Because administratively, there’s a lot that goes into this that nobody sees to take seriously, but when it all goes wrong, the bright lights are gonna be on me, and I’m gonna be alone in that room,” Dunlap said.
To cartographer-turned-activist Grohoski, Dunlap’s insistence on the system’s complexity is exasperating.
“My message to the Secretary of State is, we sometimes have to do things in our job that are hard and that we don’t like,” Grohoski said.
Bailey called Dunlap’s suggestion that the voting system is too complicated to implement “frankly absurd.”
“It’s not grounded in any factual information or any experience of any city or county or state that we’ve seen in this country use rank choice voting,” he said.
Bailey cited North Carolina’s successful statewide pilot project for ranked-choice voting in 2010.
Dunlap has little patience for references to other places that have implemented ranked-choice voting.
“There’s a saying in this business that if you know how elections are managed in your state, then you know how elections are managed in your state,” he said. “Election law in North Carolina is very, very different.”
But the Secretary is well aware that he has no real say in the matter.
“I’m not a policy-maker, I’m an administrator. So my job really is to do what I’m told,” Dunlap said “Now, that being said, you don’t want to be told to do the impossible.”
It remains to be seen whether ranked-choice voting will work for Maine. If the “people’s veto” is successful, and petitioners obtain the requisite number of signatures by February 2nd, Mainers will employ ranked-choice voting in the June primary election. They will also vote on whether to veto the delay-and-repeal bill. If the majority of Mainers vote to veto the bill, ranked-choice voting will be used in primary and federal elections from then on.
Ranked-choice advocates would see this outcome as a triumph for democracy, not only because of the reform it would entail, but how it was achieved—through the tireless work of passionate citizens who persisted in spite of interference from the judiciary, the legislature, and the freezing temperatures.
“This is a transformative reform that could improve our democracy,” Bailey said. “It’s not a silver bullet. But it’s one thing we can do and we ought to do to give voters more voice and more choice in our democracy. To me, that’s exciting.”