A new way to vote in Maine

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 3rd of October, 2019. So glad you’ve joined us today for The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, changing the way voting works.

Flash forward about a year. 

It’s November 2020. You’re standing in a polling place. You have a ballot in front of you. 

It says “President of the United States” and you find a list of candidate names—as you normally would. 

Here’s where it becomes abnormal. 

Instead of saying “Vote for one,” the ballot asks you instead to rank the candidates. 

Which one do you like best? Who would be your second choice? Third? Fourth? 

The theory goes like this: If your first choice doesn’t win, you have backup votes.

REICHARD: That’s how voters in Maine will cast their ballots next November. WORLD Radio’s Anna Johansen reports now on what’s behind this change.

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: It’s called ranked choice voting. Countries like Australia and Ireland use it. But it’s still rare in the United States.

RICHIE: I think as we go forward we’re seeing a lot of people run. We’re seeing a hunger and interest in more independence and third parties. 

Rob Richie is the CEO of an organization called FairVote. He says ranked voting encourages people to vote for the candidate they actually like—even if they’re not from a dominant political party.

RICHIE: And so if you want to vote for a third party candidate, someone who you feel is a better representative of what you’re hoping to get from politics, you can vote very freely for that candidate and yet not feel that you’re giving up your chance to make a difference in the choice between two candidates that might be seen as more viable. 

Maine Governor Janet Mills hasn’t officially signed the ranked voting legislation. But she’s not vetoing it, either. She says it still has some financial and logistical concerns and she wants the legislature to fix those issues. But come November 2020, Maine voters will be using ranked choice voting to pick the president.

Not everyone is sold on the idea. That’s because while ranking candidates might seem pretty straightforward, counting those ballots can get a little dicey. Here’s how it works.

After voters cast their ballots, tabulators count all the first place votes. If a candidate has over 50 percent of those votes, then they win. If not, that’s when things get interesting.

RICHIE: And so you go to the candidate who is in last place, and that candidate is eliminated from the count.

Everyone who put that candidate first now gets their second choice bumped up a slot. Tabulators recount the ballots to see if anyone has a majority of votes now. If not, they do the same thing: Cut the last place candidate, reallocate votes, count it all again. It might take a couple of rounds to get a majority winner.

VON SPAKOVSKY: The problem is that the average voter doesn’t rank all the candidates on the ballot. 

Hans von Spakovsky analyzes election law for the Heritage Foundation. He says ranked voting isn’t practical, and it doesn’t accurately represent voters.

VON SPAKOVSKY: I’m a typical voter. Look, there are candidates for particular parties I would never vote for and I’m not gonna want to rank them at all. And I think there are a lot of voters that feel that way.

Maybe you decide to only rank your first and second choice. But if that election goes into a third round of counting, and you didn’t select a third choice, then, in theory, you didn’t vote in that third round. It’s called ballot exhaustion. You’ve exhausted all your choices, but the election keeps moving on.

Jake Posik works for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. He says that ballot exhaustion leads to a fake majority.

POSIK: It should be noted that the 50 percent is not 50 percent of the votes cast on election day. It is 50 percent of the votes remaining in whichever round that you are counting votes in.

Posik points to Maine’s congressional election in 2016. He says 8,000 ballots were exhausted after the first round and didn’t count toward the second round of tabulation. 

POSIK: And then the denominator used to determine a majority changes because you just wiped out 8,300 votes. It’s like these people never even participated in the election.

Ranked voting might impact elections in other ways, like how candidates campaign. Posik believes people will spend more money tearing down their political opponents. He cites a study by his own organization, the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

POSIK: There was no independent expenditures to oppose gubernatorial candidates in the last like three or four gubernatorial elections in Maine until we used ranked choice voting, and then we saw a 100 percent spike in outside spending.

But Rob Richie says that doesn’t make logical sense. He believes ranked voting will have a positive effect on campaigns.

RICHIE: You as a candidate now have a reason to engage with more voters to try to not only be their first choice, but you can get something out of being their second choice. You’re trying to understand what more people think and you’re trying to find an argument that connects with them. 

Maine is the first state to implement ranked voting on the presidential level. But other states and cities are looking into it for different types of elections.

RICHIE: New York City is voting on whether to change all its future primary and special elections to ranked choice voting.

Richie expects ranked voting to become more and more common—especially in crowded contests like presidential primaries.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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