Towns gear up for ranked-choice voting

New system leaves complicated calculations to Secretary of State
By Ethan Andrews | Jun 05, 2018
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Belfast Deputy Clerk Angie Crosby tests one of the city's voting machines with ranked-choice ballots in preparation for the June 12 primary election.

Ranked-choice voting will be used statewide for the first time in the June 12 primary election in races with three or more candidates.

In Waldo County, Democrats will be asked to rank the seven candidates for governor and four candidates for Maine's 2nd Congressional District. Republicans will see ranked choice only in the governor's race, where four candidates are competing for the GOP nomination.

Under the new system, voters are asked to pick some or all of the candidates in a given race and rank them in order of preference. First choices from all ballots are tallied, and any candidate who gets more than 50 percent of the votes wins. If no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, then the second-choice votes from the ballots of voters who picked the eliminated candidate as their first choice are distributed among the rest of the field.

The math gets more complicated in races with four or more candidates, but for voters the process remains fairly straightforward. For each ranked-choice race, the voter simply must fill in the bubble on the first column for their top candidate, the bubble on the second column for their second choice, and so on.

Those who don't wish to rank the candidates can mark their first choice and be done.

Sample primary ballots from the state appear relatively foolproof. However, the Maine Department of the Secretary of State has addressed the few ways that a voter might do it wrong and what will happen as a result.

Choosing the same candidate in every rank — first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. — will be treated the same as picking that candidate as first choice and leaving other choices blank. On ballots with only the first choice and third choice marked, the third choice will be bumped up to second. The same would be true for any single skipped rank.

Skipping two ranks — marking a first choice and a fourth choice but nothing in between, or marking choices 1, 2 and 5 only — invalidates any choices below the skipped ranks.

In larger municipalities like Belfast that have electronic voting machines, tallies will be collected on a thumb drive and driven by courier to the Secretary of State's Office where they will be added to those from other municipalities and run through the ranked-choice elimination process.

Local clerks will keep a paper record of the tallies for each race and printouts from voting machines will list the number of voters who picked a given candidate for each rank — first, second, third, etc. — but the final results will come from the Secretary of State's Office.

In smaller towns that don't have voting machines, election officials will tally the first-choice columns after the polls close, then send all ballots to the Secretary of State for counting.

Supporters of ranked-choice say the system allows voters to pick their preferred candidate without worrying that they have inadvertently "thrown away" their vote and helped to elect a candidate they don't want to win. Additionally, the system ensures that the winner has received a plurality of votes.

Opponents say the system is too new and untested to be used in important races, and that because it is slightly more complicated, it might discourage some voters from participating.

A separate referendum question on June 12 will determine whether the state continues to use ranked-choice voting in elections.

Question 1, "People's Veto," asks: "Do you want to reject the parts of a new law that would delay the use of ranked-choice voting in the election of candidates for any state or federal office until 2022, and then retain the method only if the Constitution is amended by Dec. 1, 2021, to allow ranked-choice voting for candidates in state elections?"

Supporters of ranked-choice should vote "yes," opponents "no."

Watch a video that explains ranked-choice voting.

The back of a Democratic primary election ballot showing ranked choice grids that will be used to determine the party nominee in races for governor and Maine's 2nd Congressional District. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
The back of a Republican primary election ballot showing ranked choice grids that will be used to determine the party nominee for governor. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
The front of this sample Republican primary ballot in Belfast includes all races with fewer than three candidates and resembles ballots from elections past. Ranked-choice races, new this year, will appear on the back of the ballot. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
In Belfast, thumb drives will be used to deliver election results from the city's voting machines to the Secretary of State's Office for tabulation of ranked-choice votes after the June 12 primary election. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
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