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Maine OKs Ranked-Choice Voting in November, a First in the Nation

An election polling place station during a United States election.
By Richard Dahl on July 20, 2020 8:55 AM

Barring a successful appeal by Republicans, Maine voters will be the first in U.S. history to use ranked-choice voting in the November general election.

On July 15, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap announced that a Republican effort to put the question to a vote of the people this fall had failed to secure enough signatures. Therefore, ranked-choice voting will proceed in November because voters approved the method in 2016 in a statewide vote.

If "ranked-choice voting" sounds unfamiliar, you're not alone. It's used in six nations for all national elections, enjoys broad use in many other countries, and it's been gaining traction in the U.S. on a smaller scale in local elections, primaries, and party elections.

Still, it's probably safe to say that most Americans aren't fully familiar with the concept.

Most of us in the U.S. are accustomed to "plurality" voting, which basically means "winner take all." In ranked-choice voting, however, voters are asked to rank the candidates in order of preference.

If a candidate wins at least 50% of the vote, they win outright. But if no candidate reaches that threshold, ranked-choice voting goes into effect. First, the candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated, and that candidate's ballots are then distributed to those voters' second choices. In other words, if you've picked a losing candidate, your vote still counts.

This process then continues until one candidate has at least 50% of the votes.

The Argument for Ranked-Choice Voting

Proponents of ranked-choice voting say it provides several advantages:

  • It tends to make campaigns more civil. Candidates may have an interest in appealing to voters as a more moderate second or third choice.
  • It may lessen the influence of money in politics and increase voter turnout.
  • It may improve electoral chances of minorities and women.
  • It may increase the electoral success of more centrist candidates.

The Argument Against Ranked-Choice Voting

Opponents, however, offer counterarguments:

  • It can be confusing for voters. "This inherent feature of ranked-choice voting is problematic because it demands that voters have a large amount of information about candidates' differing views," according to the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative organization.
  • Candidates may be able to game the system. "Since candidates often win with the aid of lower-preference rankings, ranked-choice elections can incentivize parties to look for third-party candidates to insert into a race for their own benefit," Time reported.
  • Is winning with a plurality, rather than a majority, really more fair?

Looking to the Future

In Maine, Republicans still intend to challenge the secretary of state's decision. The state's party chair, Dr. Demi Kouzounas issued a statement July 15 charging that Dunlap had used a "litany of technicalities" to throw out enough signatures to keep the question off the ballot. "Let me be clear," she said. "This fight is not over."

Meanwhile, however, ranked-choice voting seems to be gaining more proponents across the country. This year, four states — Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming — used it in their Democratic primaries. Eighteen cities are using it for their elections and five more are slated to do so in the next two years.

If you're a voter in Maine or one of these other jurisdictions, it might seem more confusing to vote using ranked-choice ballots. But it may also help you develop a fuller understanding of the candidates and a strategic plan for how you want to vote. In short, it might make you a more engaged citizen.

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