LEWISTON, Maine — A group that seeks a statewide referendum to change the way Maine votes in 2016 will begin its campaign later this month.

Ranked Choice Voting Maine wants Maine to become the first U.S. state to fully use a ranked-choice ballot system for its elections and has gathered the more than 61,123 signatures from registered voters to place a ballot question before voters in November 2016.

Former state Sen. Dick Woodbury, a Yarmouth independent and a spokesman for the group, said organizers expect to submit signatures to Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap on Oct. 19. The signature-gathering drive started in October 2014 and has collected more than 70,000 signatures, according to Woodbury. He said the group collected more than 40,000 signatures on Election Day 2014.

Ranked-choice voting would allow voters to rank candidates in multi-candidate races in order of preference creating an “instant runoff” when no single candidate receives more than 50 percent of the total vote.

The system, according to Woodbury, ensures that the candidate with the largest number of votes would be elected. Woodbury and other supporters of the change note that nine of the last 11 gubernatorial elections in Maine have been won by a candidate who received less than 50 percent of the vote because of multi-candidate campaigns.

Only Joseph Brennan in 1982 with 61.9 percent of the vote and Angus King in 1998 with 58.6 percent of the vote won re-election with more than 50 percent.

Ranked-choice voting ensures every voter matters in that his or her second and third choice could play a role in the final outcome of an election, Woodbury said.

How does it work?

On Election Day, voters rank in order of preference their top three candidates. If a candidate receives 50 percent plus one of the top-spot votes, that candidate is elected.

If no candidate receives 50 percent plus one, the candidate with the lowest number of top vote choices is eliminated and an instant runoff takes place between the remaining candidates, counting second place and if necessary third place votes to see which candidate has the highest total number of votes to become the winner.

A number of U.S. cities, including Portland, have adopted ranked-choice voting their mayoral races.

Woodbury said ranked-choice voting would help return politics to the middle ground and would require candidates to gain support from a true majority of voters and not just a solid base that happens to equal more than vote totals garnered by other competing candidates.

Woodbury suggests that by pushing candidates from the extremes of a “hyper-partisan” system, voters would elect officials who are there to make policy for the majority and not for the various special interests that continue to drive divisions in politics today.

The current election system that allows voters to pick just their favorite candidate doesn’t work well when there are more than two candidates on the ballot, Woodbury said.

“As soon as you have three, four, five candidates … we are in a situation where the winner is not winning with a pure majority; they are winning typically with less than a majority — meaning most people are not voting for the person who wins under our current system,” Woodbury said.

The current system also means that voters will often be strategic, voting for the candidate they think has the best chance to win instead of for the candidate they favor.

“So all these questions of spoiler effect, and dividing the vote and strategic voting … become a big part of the campaign conversations,” Woodbury said.

Woodbury also said the current system provides an incentive for campaigns to be negative.

“If you only need to hold on to 30 or 35 percent of the vote to win, your basic campaign method is going to be, embrace your 30-35 percent but knock down everybody else to get them below the 30 or 35 percent level so that you win with the largest of the minority or the plurality vote,” Woodbury said.

The question will ask voters to apply ranked-choice voting to all statewide elections, including congressional races and gubernatorial and legislative races.

Supporters of the campaign include the League of Women Voters of Maine, Common Cause and FairVote. Woodbury said politicians from both sides of the aisle also seem to be embracing the change.

So far, no official group has formed in opposition to the campaign, but Woodbury expects organized opposition to emerge.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.