Voices & Choices

Maine voters make American electoral history

Maine voters make American electoral history

In a night of several electoral firsts, Maine made history Tuesday, Nov. 6 by becoming the first state to elect a U.S. Senator and two members of the U.S. House of Representatives using ranked choice voting. According to news reports, election officials throughout the state were reporting the RCV election went smoothly, and Secretary of State Matt Dunlap told FairVote that “overall, voters were pleased with it” and that he expects RCV to become a “fixture” of Maine politics.

Dunlap anticipates voter turnout will approach two thirds of Maine’s registered voters, up sharply from the last midterm elections. More votes were counted in the U.S. Senate race with RCV than the governor’s race without it. Voters also made good use of RCV. In all three RCV elections, about a tenth of the vote went to candidates outside the top two.

As of 3 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, results from Maine’s elections were not final, but two races have been called by the Associated Press. With 87 percent of precincts reporting, independent Sen. Angus King, the incumbent, cruised to an apparent victory with 55 percent of the vote (323,370 votes), defeating both his challengers in the first round. Republican Eric Brakey gained 35 percent support (205,599) while Democrat Zak Ringelstein got 10 percent (61,415).

In the state’s 1st Congressional District, incumbent Democrat Rep. Chellie Pingree also scored a first-round knockout with 59 percent support (191,900 votes), defeating Republican Mark Holbrook, who had 32 percent (104,258) and independent Marty Grohman, who had 9 percent (28,429). At this writing, 95 percent of precincts have reported results.

The 2nd Congressional District is a different story. There, incumbent Republican, Rep. Bruce Poliquin is holding on to a slim lead over Assistant Maine House Majority Leader Jared Golden (D-Lewiston), 46.1 percent to 45.9 percent. Poliquin so far has totaled 123,571 to 123,196 for Golden. Independent candidates Tiffany Bond and William Hoar are a distant third and fourth in the race, but their collective vote is far bigger than the margin between Poliquin and Golden; Bond received 15,237 votes (5.7 percent) and Hoar earning 6,316 (2.4 percent), with 85 percent of precincts reporting.

Because no candidate will have a majority of support once all the first round votes are counted, the instant runoff that ranked choice voting affords voters will commence. The “instant” phrase in this case is from a voter perspective: they’ve already indicated their runoff choices without having to do what voters in states like Georgia and Mississippi are being asked to do in coming back to vote in a holiday season runoff. This year, determining a Maine winner could take a week, given the need to do RCV tallies with ballots from towns that count ballots by hand in Augusta using procedures similar to how Maine handles recounts.

As for the winner, all we know is that the victor will be the candidate who earns more votes head-to-head against his top opponent. That this race will be decided with RCV is not a surprise. Everyone knew that it might come down to the second choices of the independent candidates. That’s what Mainers voted for, and this will lead to a better outcome: a winning candidate that takes office with the support of a majority of the voters.

The incumbent Poliquin openly rejected the idea of ranking his own ballot and in so doing may have distanced himself from backers of the independent candidates. Did he campaign to earn voters’ second choices in seeking a majority or did he merely speak to his own base? If it’s the latter, the two-term congressman’s re-election bid could be in trouble.

To help understand this historic election, FairVote teamed up with professors at Colby College in Waterville, Maine along with the Bangor Daily News to conduct an Election Day exit survey of Maine voters. Once the numbers are available, we’ll be reporting the results of how the candidates did in the eyes of voters, how they understood their ballots and whether they want to keep using ranked choice voting.

For now, it appears that ranked choice voting has passed its biggest test ever with flying colors: high turnout, effective election administration, representative outcomes, and a chance for voters to have more voice.

Illustration by Mikhaila Markham 

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