PORTLAND, Maine — If the old saw from the 18th and 19th centuries — As Maine goes, so goes the nation — has any 21st-century validity, the entire nation may be on the verge of an entirely new political era.
In less than two months, this state, which has had three independent governors in the last four decades and has an independent in the Senate today, will embark on a breathtaking new era, selecting nominees and public officials in a daring new election scheme that could turn the Dale Earnhardt epigraph (“Second place is just the first-place loser”) on its head.
This grand experiment, approved earlier this month by the state Supreme Judicial Court after years of debate and contention, has the potential of changing the way citizens vote, the way candidates behave, the way political contributions are made and the way Maine is governed. It could upend the current culture of negative campaigning and alter the character of the state’s politics.
Or it could fail miserably, leaving Maine politics in rubble for a decade, and blacken the name of political reform for a generation.
That’s because this June, Maine will become the first state to implement broad use of a ranked-choice voting system: In multicandidate races, voters would rank their selections, giving life to the contenders who are their second and third choices. Then, if no contender gets a majority, the rankings would be employed to bolster candidate vote counts and then eliminate them until one of them gets a majority.
Here’s a simple explanation, provided by Greg Kesich, the editorial page editor of the Portland Press Herald: “It’s basically a series of runoffs, but instead of having to keep coming back for another election, you cast all your votes at once.”
This plan has the shiny profile of the new, but it has been knocking around Maine for a decade, promoted by an unusual coalition of activists that includes Eliot Cutler, who was a principal in the Democratic presidential campaigns of Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine and Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia, but who has been an Independent for a dozen years.
“It’s a good thing for the state because it guarantees that whoever assumes office will have the support of more than 50 percent of the state’s voters,” said Cutler. “Governors who take office with less than a majority — which we have had repeatedly here in Maine — are handicapped. They don’t have anything close to a mandate.”
This spring’s primaries, ordinarily a sleepy affair watched by no one west of Fryeburg or south of Eliot, will receive national attention. This scheme has been used sparingly across the country, in cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis and even here in Portland, but this is the first statewide test — and it came against the will of the state legislature, whose members after all were beneficiaries of the current system, and over the objections of the governor, who likely wouldn’t have his position in Augusta had the new system been in place eight years ago.
But a series of citizen initiatives prevailed, profiting almost certainly from the nationwide contempt for the political establishment. Hillary Clinton carried Maine two years ago, but Donald J. Trump swept the northernmost reaches of the state and — another example of Maine’s unusual political character — salvaged a single electoral vote here.
Some experts believe the new system, which requires several voter choices, will so complicate the process that people will be discouraged from voting. Jason McDaniel, a San Francisco State University political scientist, has studied the scheme and believes it will cause a decline in voting participation of between 4 percent and 7 percent, concentrated among those without language fluency or substantial education.
“These reformers are elitists who can’t imagine that people will turn off to the process,” he said. “But not everybody pays attention to politics the way we do. I look at the history of reform, and usually it weakens parties and makes voting harder.”
Not so, say the backers, a group called the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting. They insist that the new system gives life — and a fighting chance — to Independents and third-party candidates that many voters might favor but whose prospects are so dim that they would be reluctant to go to the polls or, once there, be reluctant to cast their ballots for less prominent candidates.
“Under this system,” said Kyle Bailey, the campaign manager for the ranked-choice committee, “there won’t be the idea that third-party candidates are spoilers, and the voters who like those candidates won’t think their votes will be wasted.”
But there are other complications, logistical challenges that trouble leading lawmakers such as state Sen. Roger Katz, an Augusta Republican. “With 500 municipalities across the state,” he said, “all of those ballots are somehow going to have to be transported to Augusta.”
Because of a wrinkle in the Maine Constitution, this scheme will apply only to primaries and to federal races. It will not apply to general-election contests for governor or the state legislature.
And, in fact, the extent of its application is one of the big unknowns that will be determined in the June primary.
There remain constitutional challenges. There remains much uncertainty. And there remains a ballot measure that poses a vital question to primary voters: Do you want this system, or do you want the state legislature, which does not want this system, to examine it further? That may be the least visible, and most important, issue of all at the ballot box this spring.
— David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.