Our latest "Voices & Choices" podcast features Maine electoral reformer Diane Russell. This excerpt is from a previously-recorded interview which has been edited for clarity.
Rich Robinson: Welcome to another edition of Voices and Choices the podcast here at fair vote. I’m Rich Robinson. And today we’ll be talking to a true champion of electoral reform. But before we get to our guest today I just want to remind everyone FairVote is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that advocates for electoral reforms which give voters a greater choice, a stronger voice, and a representative democracy that works for all Americans. Now while FairVote does not endorse the candidacy of any individual or political party, we do welcome the opportunity to talk with supporters of electoral reform.
Which brings me to our esteemed guest today, Diane Russell. Diane is actually running for governor of Maine, so we wanted to get that out of the way at the top. But we want to talk to Diane about all the fantastic work that she’s been doing for the last few years in reforming electoral politics in Maine. So Diane welcome. Thank you for joining us.
Diane Russell: Thanks for having me.
Robinson: Most of our listeners know the story of what’s going on in Maine: a couple of years ago the people of Maine overwhelmingly supported the idea of adopting ranked choice voting in the state and then the legislature tried to put a halt to it. Tell us a little bit about that.
Russell: So essentially, ranked choice voting gets you better politicians. We’ve had some challenges over the past several years where we ended up splitting the election twice in the governor’s race and ended up with a Tea Party governor who governed as though he earned 61 percent of the vote, whereas 51 percent of the people in the state voted against him.
And so RCV, as we’ve come to call it, would change that dynamic. What I see really exciting about RCV is that it can change the tenor of the politics. But the long and the short of it is, Maine people decided that they wanted better politicians and so they took a risk on this rapscallion idea that I’ve had for had been working on for the last 10 years. And they said yeah we’re going to try that. We’re going to try changing the election system so we can get better politicians. We get it on the ballot which is its own story of magic and then we convince people all across the state that this system is a really good system and that we can actually do something really well for Maine.
They passed it and then it gets to the legislature and the legislature decides that they want to repeal it. Now they didn't have the courage to do an outright repeal. So what they did was to do a “delay” and that would have delayed it for four years at which point there would have been an automatic repeal if the small section of law that was in question with the Constitution wasn’t, if it wasn't a constitutional amendment, to change that. So instead of either passing a constitutional amendment to implement the will of the people and ironically they did pass a constitutional amendment that particular year, they just refused to do the one that people wanted. They did their own. Instead of doing that or instead of just moving forward with elections that were not in question -- which was also an easy fix, we’re talking about seven out of 10 elections were fine -- they decided that they wanted to do a delay with a repeal at the end where they didn't have to be present for the repeal, it just happened automatically, so they could go to their constituents and say, “Well we just voted to delay it.” It's crap. They voted to repeal it and they didn't even have the courage to do it. So the long the short of it is that Maine people wanted better politicians. They changed the election system to get that.
And then the politicians said, “Well, were quite content with the politicians you have.”
Robinson: But Maine has a very interesting counter to that, doesn’t it?
Russell: Yeah we do. This is the first time this has happened. We have both the citizens’ initiative process and a people’s veto process. We don’t have a recall, which I actually agree with, not having a recall, because it destabilizes government. But what we do have, is if there is a law that is passed by the legislature that people don't like, they can collect the same amount of signatures that you would for a citizen’s initiative to get it on the ballot to repeal, or stop, or block that law. They both have to collect up somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,123 valid signatures from registered Maine voters. The difference is that the citizens’ initiative you have a year to do it, for the people’s veto you have 90 days. And in our case, because of the way that the holiday fell, we ended up eighty eight days. And so we had to collect the same amount of signatures that we would take in a whole year to collect in just 90 days. People’s vetoes have been used previously for laws. But what hasn’t happened and what is unique about this circumstance is that we’re using a people’s referendum to protect the people’s referendum. That has not been done in Maine before.
Robinson: And you had 90 days basically in the dead of winter to do this too, to make it even more challenging.
Russell: Yeah. Normally your legislative session ends in April or June depending on the year. In this particular instance with ranked choice voting they did a special session with no one was really paying any attention it was October 21st, two weeks before Election Day. Election Day is the real magic day where you can get the vast majority, or at least half of your signatures. Done, right? Because everybody is there. Everybody’s a registered voter. You get your volunteers out to the polling locations and there are for a finite amount of time. It’s an easy way to be able to collect a significant number of signatures.
Robinson: So enough signatures were collected and sent to the secretary of state. They were certified and now it’s back on the ballot again for June’s primary election. How's that going to work? The folks are actually going to use ranked choice voting for the primary but still have to vote on ranked choice voting again, correct?
Russell: I blow people’s minds regularly because they ask that very question. The challenge with this and the frustrating thing, I believe very strongly in public voter education. So when Wade County North Carolina a decade ago was experimenting with RVC because they were doing run off, I went down there did some exit surveys and what I saw was that the League of Women Voters and other groups at the local county committees who because they do their elections are counties we do it by town, which is unusual. They have spent so much time and energy educating voters on the new system. So by the time I got to do exit polling, people knew exactly what they were doing, they found it super easy, they liked it. It was remarkable. I was expecting people to be yelling at me saying “This is complicated, this is ridiculous.” And that was just not the case of all. I had this little old lady saying “I've been doing choice since I was in kindergarten. If I don’t know how to choose my picks by now I don’t know what I'm thinking.”
And so the problem is, the secretary of state -- and I love Matt [Dunlap] and Julie [Flynn], they are consummate professionals -- but we just disagree on this point. But I’m really frustrated that we passed this in November, 2016 and we passed it with the intention of having enough time for voter education. And while the secretary of state should have been doing for public education and educating voters about how this new system works and going around and doing like what we had done during the original campaign, we had beer nights and pizza nights where you ranked your beer and you ranked your pizza and got people engaged.
Well instead, the secretary of state’s office spent all their time lobbying the Legislature to either delay or repeal it. And while they may never have officially said “We want a delay or repeal,” they would lob on a ton of concerns. “We have concerns about this new law." Which is code for, “please don't make us implement it.”