A recent SurveyUSA poll commissioned by the League of Women Voters of Maine finds clear front-runners in crowded primaries in Maine for governor and U.S. Congress. Maine primaries on June 12 will be held with ranked choice voting, which is designed to elect majority winners in one election. The survey provides a means to simulate ranked choice voting in these contests.
The Maine governor’s seat will be open for the first time since 2010, when Republican Paul LePage won his primary with 37 percent of the vote and the general election with 38 percent. Both the Democratic and Republican primaries are hotly contested this year, with seven Democrats and four Republicans vying for their party’s nomination to the office. There also are three candidates in the running for the Democratic nomination in the 2nd Congressional District, which Republicans took over from Democrats in 2014.
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills leads among Democrats, according to the poll, while businessman Shawn Moody tops the Republican field. Lucas St. Clair leads among Democrats in the 2nd Congressional District. More than 1,100 likely Maine primary voters were asked to rank the candidates in order of their preference.
Ranked choice voting (RCV) allows voters to determine winners with majority support, even from crowded primary fields. In an RCV election, voters rank candidates instead of voting for only one. Every vote counts for its first choice, and if a candidate earns more than half of these votes, then he or she wins, just like in any election. However, in this Maine survey, none of the frontrunners earned more than 50 percent, so the RCV ranking procedure began: The candidate with the fewest votes was defeated. Voters who ranked that candidate first had their ballots instantly count for their next choice. The process continued until two candidates remained, and one candidate received a majority of votes.
Here’s where the Democratic contest for governor stands according to this poll: 23.5 percent of voters are undecided, showing that the race still could change significantly. Among remaining voters, Mills received 41.2 percent of first choices, a 2-1 advantage over her closest rival, former Maine House Speaker, Mark Eves (20.4 percent). Former Biddleford Mayor Donna Dion polled in last place with 3 percent and was defeated in the first round. Dion’s votes were not wasted; her voters’ ballots counted for their next choice. In successive rounds, Diane Russell, Betsy Sweet, Adam Cote and Mark Dion were all defeated in succession. As the field narrowed to two candidates, Mills won with backing from 65.6 percent of the voters, while Eves earned 34.4 percent.
In the Republican contest for governor, 22 percent of voters were undecided. Among the remaining voters, Moody had 43.7 percent support in the first round, nearly double the support for former Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew (24.2 percent). Maine House Member Ken Fredette was in last place with 12.6 percent and was defeated in the first round. After his votes were distributed to second choices, Moody’s lead increased to 49 percent while Mayhew’s support increased to 25.9 percent, narrowly outpacing State Senator Garrett Mason. With Mason eliminated next, Moody earned a majority in the third round with 65.5 percent to Mayhew’s 34.5 percent.
The 2nd Congressional District race has two clear frontrunners, Lucas St. Clair and Jared Golden, who are joined on the ballot by Craig Olson. When the poll began, there was a fourth candidate, Jonathan Fulford, but he dropped out halfway through the survey days. Both with and without Fulford, St. Clair ended up on top in the poll, 52 percent to 48 percent in the final round. See the results with and without Fulford; for the latter portrayal, any preference for Fulford was simply advanced to the candidate indicated as the next choice.
“A ranked choice voting election better ensures the winner of the election has the majority of overall support from the voters,” said League of Women Voters of Maine President Jill Ward. “With the old system, all three of these races would be headed for non-majority outcomes. Ranked choice voting confirms the fairness and broad support of the outcome. It also encourages candidates to reach out to more voters, and it encourages voters to learn more about the candidates.”
Academic studies show that ranked choice voting in city elections has led to candidates running more positive campaigns and focusing more on the issues. Voters earn the freedom to vote for the candidates they like the best, without fear of helping elect the candidate they like the least. It enables them to participate in a single, decisive election, and avoid the high costs and low turnout associated with runoffs.
“Maine’s trailblazing use of ranked choice voting comes at a time when there is more enthusiasm to run for public office and often more crowded primaries,” said Grace Ramsey, deputy outreach director of FairVote. “Republicans were just nominated in key U.S. Senate primaries in Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia with less than half the votes, and one Republican contest for an open congressional seat in West Virginia was won with only 24 percent. Both parties would benefit from following Maine’s example in the use of ranked choice voting.”
SurveyUSA interviewed a total of 2,192 state of Maine adults April 26 through May 1st. Of the adults, SurveyUSA identified 546 likely Republican primary voters statewide and 659 likely Democratic primary voters statewide, with about half doing the survey online and half on the phone by a landline. Democrats in Maine's 2nd U.S. Congressional District were over-sampled to yield a large enough cross-section of voters in the primary for U.S. House of Representatives to be extrapolatable. These over-sampled ME-02 Democrats were then down-weighted to their correct, proportional size. The survey was funded by FairVote and the Election Reformers Network.
“This survey helps ground the reality of what ranked choice voting will mean in Maine this June,” FairVote’s Executive Director Rob Richie said. “The ease with which the SurveyUSA poll accommodated the news that a major candidate had withdrawn in the second congressional district also underscores the more general value of all survey in primary elections asking for and reporting on first, second and third choices, With such information presented well, the public can better gauge the impact of candidates rising or falling in the polls.”
Read more about Maine’s statewide ranked choice voting election here.