Posted by Rich Robinson on June 22, 2018 at 3:43 PM

June 22, 2018

Contact: Rich Robinson at [email protected] or 301-270-4616

Democratic nominees for governor and Congress win “instant runoffs”

TAKOMA PARK, Md. -- The state of Maine today finalized the results from its primary election held on June 12. More Maine voters participated in a Democratic primary than in Maine history: More than 126,000 votes cast, up from an average of about 83,652 votes recorded in the party‘s last three gubernatorial primaries without a Democratic incumbent (2002, 2010, and 2014). Voters chose among seven Democrats for governor statewide and among four Democratic candidates in the 2nd Congressional District. These were the nation’s first state and federal office primaries decided with ranked choice voting (RCV) in the modern era of American politics.

Janet Mills won the gubernatorial nod with the most votes of any Democratic candidate since the 1980s, and Jared Golden won the nomination in the 2nd Congressional District. In both of these Democratic primary contests, multiple rounds of counting were required. All other Democratic contests and all Republican contests were decided with a majority vote in the first round, including Shawn Moody, emerging with 56 percent in the four-candidate race for the Republican nomination for governor.

Ranked choice voting allows voters to determine winners with majority support, even from crowded primary fields. In an RCV election, voters rank candidates instead of choosing 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, if no candidate earns more than 50 percent, the RCV procedure begins. The candidate with the fewest votes is defeated. Voters who ranked that candidate first have their ballots instantly count for their next choice.

The process continues until two candidates remain, and one candidate receives a majority of votes.

How RCV affected the outcomes

Democratic nomination for governor: Janet Mills won the primary in the final round of tally. In the first round, Mills earned 33.3 percent of first choices, a 5 percent advantage over her closest rival, Adam Cote. Mark Eves and Betsy Sweet each earned at least 14 percent of first choices, with three candidates in single digits.

As the field narrowed to two, candidates in last place were successively eliminated. When it was down to Mills vs. Cote, Mills won with backing from 54.1 percent of the voters, while Cote earned 45.9 percent. That “instant runoff” represents an outcome of a head-to-head comparison between Mills and Cote among the voters who ranked at least one of them on their ballot -- representing 93.5 percent of voters who indicated a preference in the first round. Here are two visual descriptions of the tally.

As one looks to the tally, note that:

  • Mills did a good job running her first RCV campaign. She gained more votes than Cote in every round and increased her margin overall.
  • Eves and Sweet campaigned together, and Eves' voters did give more votes to Sweet than anyone else, but most went to either Cote or Mills.
  • The number of 1st round gubernatorial voters with valid votes was 126,139. The number counting in final round was 117,250. That meant 93 percent of voters "stayed in play." The average decline in all federal primary runoffs since 1994 has been more than 35 percent.

The 2nd Congressional District race had two clear frontrunners, Lucas St. Clair and Jared Golden, who were joined on the ballot by Craig Olson. On the ballot, there was a fourth candidate, Jonathan Fulford, although he had dropped out of the race over a month before Election Day.

Golden was the leader after the first round of counting and received slightly more of Olson and Fulford’s second choice votes.

“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, FairVote deputy outreach director and a leader in RCV training of Maine candidates earlier this year. “States would benefit from following Maine’s example in the use of ranked choice voting.”

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. Note that Texas held primary runoffs this year, and voter turnout plunged by nearly 49 percent between the primary and the primary runoff.

“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, these races would have had non-majority outcomes and left lingering doubt about the winners. 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.”

Read more about Maine’s statewide ranked choice voting election here.

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