This column first appeared in the Portland Press Herald
If ranked-choice elections make it back on the ballot next summer, it will be a vote on what it means when Mainers vote for something.
By Greg Kesich
Next June may see Maine’s first “meta-election,” one where voters go to the polls to vote on the meaning of voting itself.
Confused? Let’s review.
For years, people have been concerned about how our state’s two-party system doesn’t work in our multi-party reality. This sentiment came to a head after the 2010 election, when Republican Paul LePage eked out a 10,000-vote win with only 37 percent of the vote and proceeded to govern as if he had won by a landslide. But Democrat John Baldacci wasn’t known as “Gov. 38” on the Republican blogs for nothing. People have been complaining about plurality elections for a while.
The Legislature responded by doing what it does best – nothing. Oh, legislators have been busy in Augusta, especially during the past seven years, when playing defense against the governor has been a full-time job. But there’s been no appetite for doing anything like electoral reform, which would take a lot of work and bipartisan cooperation.
So, citizens took it into their own hands and put a question on a ballot. Voters were asked if they wanted to institute ranked-choice voting in elections in which there are more than two candidates. It passed with 53 percent of the vote, the second-highest number of votes ever cast for a Maine initiative and, incidentally, 165,000 more votes than LePage got in his first campaign.
But the story doesn’t end there. On Monday, the Legislature decided to do something, which was to turn back the clock to the time when it was still doing nothing. Ranked-choice voting was put off until 2021, and will disappear unless two-thirds of House and Senate members can agree on a constitutional amendment that could be sent back out to voters. Because there are enough Republicans who would never let that happen, the delay bill is really repeal.
So here’s where the “meta-election” – or election about elections – comes in: Ranked-choice voting proponents are planning a people’s veto campaign, in which they will again gather signatures and try to get the issue back on the ballot in June 2018.
If they are successful – and it’s not easy to gather 61,000 valid signatures in 90 days – voters would be asked if they approve what the Legislature has done to their referendum.
This wouldn’t be a normal election – a choice between candidates, parties or ideas. It would be a vote on what it means when people vote, and what duty elected officials have to honor the results.
What won’t be on the ballot, but may be on many voters’ minds, is the way elected officials have treated other citizen initiatives – starting with Gov. LePage’s refusal to issue voter-approved bonds for land conservation or senior housing, or how the Legislature scaled back the minimum-wage increase for tipped workers, repealed the 3 percent surcharge on the highest incomes, and whatever it will end up doing to the marijuana legalization law, which looks to be something other than legalizing marijuana.
At a time when the people have resorted to the citizen initiative process more often than ever in the past, elected officials have shown less deference to the will of the voters than at any other time in history. This has never really happened before, and we don’t know what will happen next.
Maybe nothing. Complicating the ranked-choice voting mess is a unanimous Maine Supreme Judicial Court advisory that said the law as passed would violate the state constitution in general elections for governor and legislator (but not in primaries or federal races). Maybe voters will decide there’s no point having one system for counting votes in primary elections and another for the general. Maybe voters will decide that the Legislature really is the best place to make laws, and maybe we’ll see fewer ballot questions in the future. What’s the point if Augusta just treats these things as suggestions?
Or maybe voters will use this people’s veto question as a platform to strike back at the way the Legislature and governor have failed to honor the results of a series of elections.
Lawmakers are already warning about chaos that would occur if the ranked-choice voting law goes forward. Their nightmare scenario is an Election Night when two candidates claim to be Maine’s next governor.
But as the elections of Paul LePage and Donald Trump have shown, some voters are less afraid of chaos than they are angry about being ignored.
Will 2018 be the year that people will stand up for referendum results? If we ever have that “meta-election,” we’ll find out.