AUGUSTA — “Our elections are free, fair and secure,” said Secretary of State Shenna Bellows. “Mainers should be very proud of that.”

Bellows addressed questions about the upcoming Nov. 8 election, including Maine’s controversial use of ranked-choice voting in some races and questions raised by gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage about the integrity of elections in some Maine cities including Rockland.

Ranked-choice voting returns as an issue this year as citizens in Maine’s Second Congressional District see a rematch between Democrat Jared Golden and Republican Bruce Poliquin with a third candidate in the race, Independent Tiffany Bond.

Golden owes his election to Congress in 2018 to the use of ranked-choice voting in Maine. In the initial count, Poliquin had a plurality in that he had more first-round votes than Golden, but since he did not have a majority (more than 50% of the votes cast), ranked-choice voting kicked in and it went to a second round. Through this process, Golden was declared the winner. Poliquin filed a lawsuit protesting the process as unconstitutional and illegal, but his effort ultimately failed.

Now in 2022, Golden, Poliquin and Bond are all running for Congress and ranked-choice voting will be used in that race again.

However, even though this is a major election year, this is the only race that will use ranked-choice voting. It is only applied to primary and federal races, but not to Maine’s gubernatorial or state Legislature races in the general election. That is because Maine’s Law Court determined Maine’s Constitution specifies winning by a plurality in these races, which excludes possible use of ranked-choice voting.

How ranked-choice voting works

Ranked-choice voting is sometimes called “instant run-off voting.” Voters choose candidates in order of preference by marking their first, second, third and subsequent choices. It is only applied to races with more than two candidates.

If any candidate receives a clear majority (more than 50% of the votes), they win and the race is over.

Often, however, in races with three or four candidates, no one candidate receives a clear majority. For example, both Republican Paul LePage and Democrat John Baldacci were elected with 38% of the vote, or a plurality, at one point.

With ranked-choice voting, if there is no majority it then goes to a second. The candidate with the least votes is eliminated. Those whose first choice was eliminated have their second choices applied to the race. The rounds continue until one candidate has a majority.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows

With the old system, voters who might want to choose an independent or third party candidate must wrestle with whether to be pragmatic and vote for a big party candidate to prevent the election of someone they really do not want, or whether to vote based on their true preference.

“I think ranked-choice has worked really well to empower voters to vote their conscience rather than trying to negotiate who they think is going to win,” Bellows said. “They can vote for who they truly want to serve in office.”

Asked what she would say to opponents, Bellows said, “Mainers overwhelmingly supported ranked-choice voting and that’s why we have it in our state.”

Ranked-choice voting was put on the ballot through a citizen initiative effort and approved in 2016. The Legislature tried to enact a bill to prevent its implementation and another citizen initiative campaign led to a successful people’s veto of that legislation in 2018. The matter has also been the subject of numerous lawsuits and revisions due to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s findings on its adherence to the state’s constitution.

“For government to get things done it’s important for elected officials to truly represent the will of the people,” Bellows said. “What ranked-choice voting promotes is coalition-building to ensure that whoever is the ultimate winner has majority support from the people.”

She said this is especially important when elected officials need to work across party lines.

However, she recognizes the challenge in expanding ranked-choice voting to cover other races.

“There have been multiple attempts in the Legislature to bring forward a constitutional amendment to apply ranked-choice voting to the general election for governor and the state Legislative races,” she said. “That has failed to get the two-thirds majority required.”

Constitutional amendments cannot be initiated by members of the public, she added. They have to be initiated in the Legislature and sent out to the public for ratification.

“That’s why proponents of ranked-choice voting, who have been so successful via referendum, have not been able to clear this last hurdle,” she said.

“The problem with ranked-choice voting is that it is overly confusing and complicated,” said Knox County Republican Committee Chair Victoria Bucklin. “…People are embarrassed to admit that they don’t understand it and when the Poliquin-Golden race was hand-counted, many ballots were thrown out because they were not properly marked. …Confusion leads to voter distrust and we are suffering the lowest confidence in our government in my lifetime. Adding in the confusion and complication of RCV is a bad thing.”

“We continue to see voters find ranked-choice voting inconvenient and unnecessarily complicated,” said Maine GOP Executive Director Jason Savage. “Support for ranked-choice voting has not grown, despite promises by supporters that it would and the issues we witnessed in Portland due to RCV are a clear example of why it should not be expanded, but repealed.”

Bellows responded, saying, “In elections conducted by ranked choice, Maine voters have found it simple and easy to use, with no major issued reported. Mainers appreciate that ranked choice voting allows them to vote their heart, without concerns of vote splitting.

“Our local election officials work very hard to ensure that every ballot is counted. To suggest that ballots would be thrown out because a voter chose the same candidate for all options or just marked a single choice is disinformation.”

A few more notes about ranked-choice voting

When marking your ballot, if you mark more than one candidate in the same ranking – marking two candidates as your first choice, for example – that will invalidate your ballot since there is no way to know who was really your choice in that rank.

If you still want to vote for only one candidate, just put them down once as your first choice. It will not count any more in the process to mark them all the way across the ballot as first, second and third choices.

More information, including a video, is available at Maine Secretary of State’s webpage

As part of the ranked-choice voting process, all ballots are physically brought to Augusta for tabulation, which means it takes more time than the traditional process.

LePage expresses doubt about election integrity

LePage recently stated at a campaign event that he has doubts about election integrity in cities including Rockland.

“I will say in Maine, I have great confidence in small towns — I’d say towns with less than 1,000 people — because usually the clerks know everybody in town, so I have a lot of confidence. I have less confidence when you get to Bangor, Rockland, Lewiston, Portland, South Portland. Those are areas you got to be a little bit more careful. There was 163,000 people who voted in the last presidential election that didn’t have any IDs,” LePage said.

An audio of his statements were released by the Maine Democratic Party. LePage, the Republican candidate for governor, made the remarks Aug. 8 in Mount Vernon.

“Every municipality in the state — large and small — abides by the same election laws,” Bellows said. “…To suggest otherwise, to malign the Rockland clerk and election workers is deeply concerning on a number of fronts.

“First, it’s a lie to suggest there are different rules for the larger jurisdictions or that there is any unethical behavior. Our elections are free, fair and secure. Mainers should be very proud of that. All of the data in our history underscores the fact that Maine elections are extraordinarily secure and have a high level of integrity and accuracy.

“It’s also concerning because lies about our elections have fueled threats against election workers nationwide.”

She argues that an “us vs them” frame for elections is inappropriate. Maine election law requires poll workers be equally represented from both major political parties. Republicans and Democrats are working the polls in every jurisdiction.

“Generally speaking, I believe the point was that in some larger communities with populations that turn over more quickly, it is hard for clerks to know for sure a voter walking into the polls is who they say they are, which could lead to individuals exploiting that vulnerability,” Savage argued. “A Voter ID requirement, which is a policy proposal with broad public support, would ensure that voters are who they say they are. What is ‘irresponsible’ is leaving vulnerabilities in our election system that could be easily and fairly closed so everyone has confidence in election outcomes.”

He added, “It’s sort of like this: Just because your home has not been burglarized in the past two years, you won’t stop locking your door and just leave your things vulnerable, will you?”

Bellows expressed concern about an increase in “ugly rhetoric,” and noted that in the past election clerks in Maine received warm reception from voters and elections were treated more as a community celebration. She hopes to see a return to that atmosphere rather than one of confrontation.

“Words matter and the truth matters,” she said. “When people believe lies about the elections a natural result is threats against election workers.”

Source: Maine Secretary of State