In an effort to create better consensus around candidate selection, Maine embarked on an experimental approach to voting in its 2018 primaries by using a ranked choice system. In this Election Report elections expert, Rhodes Cook, explains the intricacies of this approach and explores its impacts.

Document Outline
The Instant Runoff in Action
A Concept Favored in Progressive Terrain

One of the most famous political adages in American history is: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” It is a reference to the time when Maine held its state elections in September, acting as a harbinger of sorts for the November presidential election to follow.

Humorists, though, changed the adage after the presidential election of 1936 to say: “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont”—the only two states that Franklin D. Roosevelt lost in his landslide victory that year.

But Maine is back again in the public eye, not for its prescience in predicting elections, but for the way it is conducting elections. This is the first year that any state has used the “instant runoff” or “ranked-choice” system.

Rather than cast a single vote in each race as the rest of the country does, voters in Maine’s June primary got to rank order all the candidates in races with more than two entrants for Congress, the governorship, and state legislature. In contests where no candidate won a majority in the initial count, the candidate with the fewest votes was eliminated and their vote redistributed among the remaining candidates to reflect their second-choice preference. The process proceeded until one candidate won a majority of the vote.

The Instant Runoff in Action

Case in point: Maine’s Democratic primary for governor. There were seven candidates on the ballot and a write-in line. Maine Attorney General Janet Mills led Adam Cote, a renewable energy entrepreneur, in the initial count, 33% to 28%. She inched closer to a majority on subsequent rounds as her opponents fell by the wayside. Mills took 35% on the second round and 41% on the third. She won on the fourth round, defeating Cote, 54% to 46%.

The race for the Democratic nomination in Maine’s 2nd congressional district also went to “overtime,” with the eventual nominee winning in the second round. As in the Democratic primary for governor, the leader on the first round in the 2nd District, assistant state House leader Jared Golden, went on to win the nomination. There were no instant runoffs on the Republican side.

Proponents of the instant runoff say that by requiring a majority of the vote, the system helps create consensus and lessens the odds of a fringe candidate winning, without necessitating the need for a free-standing runoff election several weeks later. The latter is the case in many Southern states, where runoffs can be expensive and fray party harmony if they turn nasty.

On the other hand, critics of the instant runoff say that it is too complicated and confusing, and it takes too long to tally the vote. While the winner of the GOP gubernatorial primary took more than 50% of the vote and was known Election Night, the outcome of the Maine Democratic gubernatorial primary took a week to determine.

A Concept Favored in Progressive Terrain

A few cities with a progressive heritage, such as San Francisco, Calif., Santa Fe, N.M., and Cambridge, Mass., pre-dated Maine in using the instant runoff system. But Maine is the first state to adopt it—a surprise of sorts, since Maine does not have the progressive reputation that some other states have.

Still, several factors made Maine favorable terrain for the instant runoff. First, the state’s largest city, Portland, has been using the instant runoff in recent elections and has acted as an in-state model for the system. Second, Maine has a long history of independent candidates, particularly for governor, who often have kept the vote for the winning gubernatorial candidate well below 50%. Only once since 1982 has a candidate for governor won with a majority of the vote, and that was independent Angus King in 1998. (He is now an independent U.S. senator.)

Maine has twice voted in favor of the instant runoff, the first time to adopt the system in 2016, and the second time to reaffirm it in June 2018 in response to efforts by the legislature to delay or cancel its implementation. Neither time, though, did the vote for the instant runoff exceed 54%, with the 2018 referendum showing how highly partisan the system is, at least in Maine.

Generally speaking, Democrats like it, while Republicans are less positive about it. Seven of the eight counties that backed the instant runoff this year lay along the Atlantic coast and were carried by Hillary Clinton in the presidential election two years ago. All eight counties that opposed the instant runoff in 2018 were won by Trump, most of them in the rural interior of the state.

Support for the referendum tended to be quite strong in liberal strongholds. It drew 71% of the vote in the college town of Orono (home to the University of Maine), 73% in Portland, and 74% in Bar Harbor, a resort community near Acadia National Park.

This fall, the instant runoff will be used in Maine in races for Congress (both Senate and House), but not for governor or the state legislature. Maine’s constitution calls for general election contests for state offices to be decided with a plurality of the vote, with no majority required.

Nationally, the future of the instant runoff seems problematic at best. Widely seen as a complex and unusual “good government” concept, it is likely that only the most liberal of states would consider it. The response of the vast majority of others would probably be: Why bother?

— Rhodes Cook (10/4/18)

Document Citation
Cook, R. (2018). As Maine Goes, So Goes The Nation?. Retrieved from
Document ID: rcookltr-1527-108105-2906041
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