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The somewhat absurd controversy over Maine’s ranked-choice voting system, explained

The voting system works perfectly well in other parts of the world.

National Month for Renters September 2017 - Congressional Hearing
House of Representative Bruce Poliquin of Maine speaks on Capitol Hill in September.
Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Make Room USA

The drama over America’s first ever ranked-choice federal election — Maine’s Second Congressional District — continues, with a hand recount beginning on Thursday at the request of losing Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin.

It’s just the latest challenge to a new voting system that has withstood challenge after challenge, but this one could take as long as four weeks to resolve — possibly leaving the seat empty when the new Congress is sworn in January 3.

The election was the first time Maine has used ranked-choice voting for a federal election, following a ballot box law passed by Maine voters in 2016 (the system cannot be used for gubernatorial or state races until after Maine changes its constitution, something Governor-elect Janet Mills has vowed to do).

The new system allows voters to number the candidates on their ballot; their alternate choices come into play if no candidate receives the majority (50 percent plus 1) of first preferences. If that happens, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and their votes redistributed to whomever those voters ranked second. This is repeated in rounds until one candidate reaches a majority. It resembles the run-off style elections held in states like Mississippi, but without needing to hold a whole new election — in a sense, simulating a series of runoff elections.

Depending on whom you ask, the new method of voting is either a push toward a more democratic system or a logistical hellscape. Despite the fact that it’s used in multiple countries around the world with little fuss, in Maine, it’s proven more the latter, thanks in part to political resistance and legal challenges from the state’s Republicans.

Where the race for Maine’s heavily contested House seat stands

In its first federal election debut in the US, ranked-choice voting made a splash: Republican Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden each received around 46 percent of the first-preference vote, with Poliquin around 2,000 votes ahead. But after the lower vote-getters were eliminated and their votes redistributed, Golden came out 3,500 votes ahead.

Since his defeat, Poliquin has been looking for ways to contest the results, from challenging the new system’s constitutionality in federal court to demanding a recount. US District Judge Lance Walker has yet to rule on Poliquin’s lawsuit against the state, but is expected to issue a decision this week.

In response to the lawsuit, Golden’s campaign manager Jon Breed said that Poliquin should have sued before the election, not after the votes were cast, if he felt the system was unconstitutional.

Maine Republicans were publicly opposed beforehand, at least. Gov. Paul LePage — whom the system was, in part, introduced in reaction against (he was elected twice without winning the majority of the vote) — called the new voting system “the most horrific thing in the world” in June, and threatened not to certify the results of the primaries. And it’s taken multiple successful state referendums to get to this point. As Vox’s Ella Nilsen reported in June:

Maine Republicans are very mad about instant-runoff voting, saying it’s unconstitutional for the government to set up an entirely new system of voting. To underscore that point, Republicans in the state Senate tried to sue Secretary of State [Matt] Dunlap to stop the process from going forward. But their proposal to halt it died on a tie vote in the Senate and was also thrown out by Kennebec Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy in an April ruling.

Workers from Maine’s Secretary of State Office have now begun the arduous task of recounting of the 300,000 ballots, the full cost of which will be covered by Poliquin if the result does not change. Ben Grant, a Golden attorney working on the recount, said the recount should help establish confidence in the system, confident himself that the result would not change. “It’s an unfortunate delay, but it does help with the public trust in the process,” he told the Portland Press Herald.

Ranked voting is controversy-free in other parts of the world

Ranked-choice voting has been used in very few places in the US — mostly just in a handful of cities for their municipal elections — but the system is surprisingly common and drama-free in other parts of the world.

It’s been used in Australia for federal lower house seats since 1918 and in Ireland for presidential elections since 1937. A number of countries began adopting ranked-choice or “alternative” voting in the late ’90s and early 2000s, including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and parts of Hong Kong. Australia also uses ranked choice for state elections.

As explained by Fair Vote, the system is intended to help “elect a candidate that better reflects the support of a majority of voters.” Ranked-choice advocates say it allows voters to genuinely express their preferences, without having to vote strategically for candidates they think have a better chance of winning in order to make their vote “count.”

A large part of Poliquin’s issue with the outcome seems to be that he came first on first-preferences and then didn’t win the election, telling media outlets “I won the election fair and square.”

But that’s not how ranked-choice voting works. It’s about electing the candidate that better reflects the support of a majority of voters, not just a plurality.

In fact, in an election in the Australian state of Victoria in November, a Greens party candidate who came third on first preferences ultimately ended up winning the seat on distributed preferences. That’s not seen as unfair or un-square — it’s seen as democratic.

America’s (very) slow turn to ranked-choice

Though its well-established in other parts of the world, ranked-choice is viewed with suspicion in the US, as any new voting system is wont to be by those elected under the status quo.

But for some Americans — like voters in Fargo who recently introduced a new “approval voting” system — a new method seems increasingly necessary.

As Vox’s Kelsey Piper writes, experts consider America’s “first-past-the-post” system among the worst voting systems:

First-past-the-post favors two-party systems. It makes it unnecessary to appeal to a broad share of the electorate in multi-candidate races. Voters often have to vote strategically — for the major party candidate they dislike least — rather than honestly — for the candidate they actually want.

But while Maine Republicans have been stubborn about accepting ranked-choice, perceived by some as resistance to something that might disadvantage them politically, it’s also seen by many as too complex for the United States to switch to.

Stephen Luntz, an electoral analyst and director of Above Quota Elections, an independent company that administers elections for non-government organizations in Australia, was asked to testify before a Los Angeles council considering implementing ranked-choice in 2008. He told me he was met with complaints that the system was too confusing, and too hard for people to understand, especially for an area with many non-English speakers.

Even most Democratic leaders feels no great desire for this switch, Luntz said, because it actually makes it easier for independents and minor parties to get a seat at the table (as it has in Australia and Ireland).

But Maine voters were interested, and the Second District’s result — whenever it’s settled — will be a step forward for both the state, and US voters who are intrigued by the idea of improving our political processes.

Correction: This article originally misstated that Canadian provinces use ranked-choice voting. Canadian provinces ceased using ranked choice in the 1950s.

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