Robert Gray steps out of the voting booth after he filled out his ballot at the Brewer Auditorium, Nov. 7, 2017. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

BANGOR, Maine — Ranked-choice voting will be used in Maine’s 2018 congressional elections, but not in the race to replace Gov. Paul LePage, whose plurality elections spurred the 2016 referendum to institute the electoral method.

Mainers have backed ranked-choice voting twice at the polls, but legal questions about whether the law conflicts with the state’s constitution on gubernatorial and legislative elections means it will only be used for federal elections Nov. 6.

The fact that Maine will decide state elections by plurality and congressional elections by ranked choice is leading to varying degrees of confusion among voters. Progressive canvassers say they’re often informing people at their doors that ranked-choice voting won’t be used in the governor’s race, which reportedly spurred some voters to rethink support for a lower-polling candidate.

In all of Maine’s top-tier races, candidates are trying to work with — or around — the system they have. That is ranked-choice voting in the re-election races for U.S. Sen. Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District and Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd District. In the governor’s race and all others, the person with the most votes will win.

State Treasurer Terry Hayes, an independent gubernatorial candidate, is weathering criticism that she could tilt the race toward Republican Shawn Moody and away from Democrat Janet Mills. Whether voters decide strategically between Hayes and those nominees is a key factor in the race.

The system is playing unevenly with voters after being approved in 2016. The first ranked-choice races came in the June primaries. In April, Maine’s high court limited its use in general elections to congressional races of because constitutional issues.

“I think it’s very confusing to the average person because it’s new,” said Roger Upton, 77, of Bangor, who hadn’t seen the ballot or read the ranked-choice instructions before going into the voting booth on Wednesday.

Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin said she’s fielded questions mostly from people wondering if they can still just vote for one candidate — the answer is yes — but overall, there have been fewer questions than in June. Shelly Crosby, Orono’s clerk, said one person asked her this week, “Why am I getting a ballot that has two different methods of voting?”

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap called it a “distinct possibility” that many people won’t know about the different voting methods between the races and his office predicates “everything we do in elections on the idea that the voter is learning about this for they very first time.”

“That’s not because they don’t care, it’s because they have other things to do besides worrying what Matt Dunlap’s working on this November,” he said.

Canvassers for the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive group that works for Democratic candidates and liberal causes, say they’re seeing this confusion at the doors. Much of the momentum for the voting method came after LePage’s 2010 election, in which independent Eliot Cutler overtook the Democratic nominee late in the race to fall just short of the Republican.

Liberal voters aren’t forgetting that eight years later. Beth White, a Lewiston-area canvasser for the group, said she talked to a man in Raymond recently who said he supported Hayes in the governor’s race until he was informed it wasn’t a ranked-choice one.

“Well, that was the only reason I was going to put Terry Hayes first,” he said, according to White. “In that case, I have to vote for Janet Mills so that we can avoid Shawn Moody.”

White and Maggie Bouchard, another canvasser, have said that’s a trend at doors. Kyle Bailey, who manages Hayes’ campaign and ran the one enshrining ranked-choice voting, said that was “typical behavior” and “the sort of thing you’d expect reported” from a Democrat-aligned group.

Hayes, a former Democrat, has been trying lately to drain support from Moody. Signs reading “Conservatives for Hayes” have gone up in parts of Maine recently, though her campaign has said that effort is led by 14 people, one of whom is Kerri Bickford, her campaign spokeswoman.

Bailey argued — based largely on three recent polls showing Mills up — that Moody can’t win and that Hayes is conservatives’ best hope to defeat Mills. But the independent was just under 8 percent in the latest polls. While Bailey said his campaign has found voters waffling between Moody and Hayes, it’s still questionable that Republicans would abandon their nominee.

“We’ve got a little less than two weeks to go and things can happen in that period of time,” he said. “We just don’t know yet.”

Knowing their history, Republicans wouldn’t mind a Hayes rise. This month, the state party seemed to encourage a split on the left by hitting Mills and Hayes in an ad deriding Mills as a career politician while more mildly calling Hayes a “liberal” who backs universal health care.

Maine Republican Party spokeswoman Nina McLaughlin said members of her party are “all in” for Moody and officials “have not heard of any confusion at the doors” about the voting method. When asked for comment on Hayes’ new strategy, she advised Hayes to “look at the results” of Wednesday’s mock student election, which is held each year by Dunlap’s office.

Hayes won 13.7 percent and Caron won 11 percent, though that was higher than they’ve been in public polls. Mills won 33.8 percent. Moody won 40 percent and that might be all it takes to win the Blaine House once the adults decide.

BDN writer Alex Acquisto contributed to this report.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...