To prevent electoral chaos, Legislature needs replacement for ranked-choice voting

Ranked-choice voting (RCV) advocates, in their earnest effort to improve the state’s politics, have created a circumstance that threatens to badly damage our electoral system.

These advocates acted irresponsibly when they crafted referendum language that does not pass muster with the Maine Constitution. As the Maine Supreme Judicial Court opined last year, RCV’s requirement that a candidate receive a majority of votes through its complex series of calculations is contrary to the Maine Constitution’s specific provisions allowing simply a plurality. This means that any candidate who loses through RCV tabulation will have sufficient grounds to challenge the system in court, virtually assuring chaos. RCV advocates should have done due diligence on their own proposal before putting it in front of voters.

Because RCV advocates failed to create a law that is, well, legal, the Maine Legislature last year took the responsible step to delay implementation of RCV until the Constitution was amended to allow for it. This is a tremendously high bar, so high that it would be accurate to say the Legislature effectively repealed ranked-choice voting. This saved Maine from a potential electoral meltdown.

George Danby | BDN

Once again, however, RCV proponents are acting irresponsibly, with a startling disregard for the integrity of our electoral system. RCV proponents are gathering signatures for a people’s veto of the Legislature’s repeal bill.

By Maine law, once proponents get enough signatures to force the veto of the repeal on the ballot, the Legislature’s repeal of RCV is temporarily halted. This means that, once signatures are submitted, ranked-choice voting is once again the law of the land, until the people’s veto is voted on in June.

Long story short, if RCV proponents turn in their signatures, we will choose our primary candidates in June by ranked-choice voting.

If these signatures are turned in, the June election will descend into chaos. Maine’s electoral system will simply not be able to handle the additional burdens of ranked-choice voting.

Have you ever had to explain RCV to anyone? It’s not easy. Now imagine more than 600 municipalities all over Maine, at 9 o’clock on a Tuesday night in June, handling the complex multi-round process of RCV in town halls all across Maine.

It’s going to be a disaster.

The Legislature would need to inject a massive amount of funding into the secretary of state’s budget to create a workable RCV tabulating system, something they clearly aren’t going to do. So towns are left on their own to figure this out.

The day after the election, if results are even available then, we’ll have a series of electoral outcomes that the average person will not be able to explain. This, on its own, should have been a warning to RCV advocates. It’s challenging enough to get people to participate in our elections already, adding this complexity will further alienate the average Mainer from the people they ostensibly elect.

And what about recounts? To my knowledge, there is no provision spelled out yet for handling RCV recounts, which happen in close races every election year.

The best hope for the integrity of our electoral system in the short term is that RCV proponents fail to get the necessary signatures to get the people’s veto on the ballot.

But if the signatures are turned in by the end of January deadline, the Legislature faces a stark choice: they can do nothing and allow RCV to become law starting in June, or they can withdraw their repeal, and replace it with a different system that negates the need for RCV altogether.

What exactly to replace RCV with is a complicated question. The most obvious answer would be a traditional runoff system, where the top two contenders in an election with no majority winner would face off in a separate election. This is what is done in other states, as well as in Lewiston’s mayoral elections. The Maine Constitution’s plurality provision would still force a constitutional amendment to implement this, though.

This is not going to be easy.

In order to stop RCV and its ensuing chaos, the Legislature will have to come up with a suitable replacement for our current system that passes the constitutional test and has enough bipartisan support to garner a two-thirds vote for emergency implementation, to make sure RCV does not happen in June.

An extremely high hill to climb.

Regardless of the difficulty, something has to be done. A sense of urgency is needed to motivate lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to act in the best interest of our state and ensure ranked-choice voting does not become law.

Or just hope the signatures don’t come in by deadline.


Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.