The concept of ranked-choice voting is simple: give voters the chance not only to vote for their top choice, but to rank all candidates in order of preference. Ranked-choice voting improves voting by allowing for a more complete expression of voters’ views than the vote-for-one, “plurality” approach.
Ranked-choice voting implementation in Maine, however, has not gone smoothly. Ranked-choice voting represents a substantial change in how we administer elections, altering some of our oldest and most venerable traditions and practices. Also, as a result of last May’s opinion by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, parts of ranked-choice voting appear to be on a collision course with the Maine Constitution.
Because ranked-choice voting can affect who runs for office, how they run and how they interact with voters during the campaign, it is imperative we find a solution before the 2018 election is in full swing — not after the votes are cast.
If the Legislature does not act soon, we could face a heated battle over which system will govern our election. Uncertainty could result in multiple candidates claiming victory and vying to be seated. If that happened, a court could decide who is elected or throw out the election entirely and order the state to start over from scratch.
But the will of the voters should be honored. There is a path forward, and our elected leaders should take it.
The forthcoming legislative special session provides that opportunity. To avoid election-by-litigation and still respect the change that Maine voters clearly called for last November, we need the leadership of both political parties to set aside their differences and work together. They have the power to reconcile the law with the Constitution.
This year there has been much discussion about the Legislature’s disregard for citizen-initiated laws. There is reason for concern; the Legislature should do its best to honor the will of the voters as expressed in citizen initiatives. But in this case, unlike other recent changes to election law, legislative action is necessary since Maine’s highest court has clearly signaled it will strike down part of the law if challenged.
The League of Women Voters of Maine supports a constitutional amendment to permit ranked-choice voting, but the Legislature failed to approve an amendment in time for the 2018 election.
The best option now — one that preserves voters’ intent while honoring the Constitution — is to suspend the use of ranked-choice voting in elections for the three offices for which the state supreme court found it unconstitutional: the general elections for the Maine House and Senate and governor. The Legislature should allow ranked-choice voting to proceed in the other elections covered by the new law — primary elections for state and federal offices, and general elections for the U.S. House and Senate. When and if voters pass a constitutional amendment in the future, the law could take effect for all elections.
This is a workable solution. It would mean that some ranked-choice voting races would appear on the ballot alongside other races, but Maine voters have already shown that they can easily handle two types of races in the same election. In 2011 and 2015, Portland used ranked-choice voting for mayoral elections alongside plurality elections for City Council on the same ballot. There were no reports of confusion among voters in either election.
This solution requires all sides to compromise. Ranked-choice voting supporters need to accept that part of the law we worked to enact cannot be applied until the Constitution is amended. Opponents have to respect the will of the voters and accept implementation of those parts of the law that pass constitutional muster.
This solution prevents a confusing and uncertain election campaign, a popular vote with no clear winner, and the possibility of the courts deciding who wins our elections. No one wants that.
In the end, the voters would win. And that should be the goal. To the greatest extent possible, voters would get the benefit of the system they overwhelmingly approved and the looming uncertainty would be lifted.
Maine people are problem-solvers and expect as much from their elected leaders. But time is wasting. For the sake of our democratic process, the Legislature needs to act when they convene later this month.
Jill Ward is president of the League of Women Voters of Maine.