All eyes look to Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, where ranked choice voting will decide the outcome in a historic first for the country.
The district, which appeared reliably Republican following the 2016 elections, was considered a bellwether going into the November election. As a close contest with four candidates held using ranked choice voting, we knew that if no candidate earned more than half of those first choices, additional rounds of counting would be required. With that count underway, some wonder why we’re waiting until Thursday, November 15 for final results after a November 6 election.
Ranked choice voting is not the cause for the delay. Elsewhere, ranked choice voting elections release results on election night. In fact, four California Bay Area cities held ranked choice voting elections for city leaders the same day as Maine, and the preliminary results were published that night.
Even in Maine, RCV has accelerated, rather than slowed, the release of official election results; Maine traditionally does not release official results until 20 days after the election, but made an exception for the RCV contests by releasing them early.
Among the causes of the slower results reporting is the state’s relatively large size combined with the fact that Maine decentralizes election administration down to the level of towns and cities. Instead of all ballots being counted by the state, or by Maine’s 16 counties, they are counted by each of Maine’s 500 municipalities. More than half of those municipalities contain fewer than 1,000 voters, and more than half of them count ballots by hand rather than with electronic equipment.
Maine law also prohibits electronic transfer of ballot data, no matter how secure the transmission, which means ballots and ballot data (from those jurisdictions that have machines) must be physically moved from each municipality to the secretary of state’s office in Augusta.
Another reason for the delayed reporting is the administrative choice not to release preliminary results until they are close to finalized. Once a significant number of ballots are in, it becomes possible to release a preliminary round-by-round tally. For instance, California is notoriously slow in completing its vote counting on account of its liberal acceptance of late ballots, which are accepted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. Yet San Francisco released its first four preliminary ranked choice voting tallies on November 6, as ballots were being counted, and has released seven more updates to results in the days since. Maine could adopt the same practice in future elections.
Importantly, Maine will have final results in its ranked choice voting elections much faster than if it attempted to promote majority rule through delayed runoff elections. Mississippi, which uses a runoff if no candidate receives more than half the votes, will be unable to declare a winner for its senate seat until after its runoff on November 27, when voters will be asked to vote a second time. As the results of our exit survey with Bangor Daily News showed, a solid majority of Maine voters support majority rule in their elections, a goal RCV has preserved while simultaneously saving voters weeks of waiting and a second trip to the polls.
Ultimately, giving voters real choices and a fair outcome for an elected leader who will represent half the state for two years is worth the wait. We hope that in 2019, the newly elected Maine legislature works to streamline the process with additional funding for election administration as well as more modern laws and practices, allowing them to release RCV results on election night. In the meantime, all signs point to success in Maine’s historic first use of ranked choice voting in congressional general elections.