On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Mainers defend preferential voting … for now

Voters in the US state of Maine have today backed an unusual ballot to veto controversial electoral legislation of the state legislature, in doing so protecting a 2016 referendum vote to bring preferential (ranked choice) voting to state elections.

The referendum vote today of 54% to 46% to impose the veto on the recently passed state law shows a slight increase on the 2016 result (52% to 48%).

The result means that today’s ballot among 5 candidates for the Democratic party nomination for Governor is set to become the first state-wide election decided by preferential voting in US history.

Preferential voting (generally known as ‘ranked choice’ voting in the US)  is already used to elect the mayors of some significant US cities.

The voting system has been used in Australian elections for over a century, starting in 1907, and became the uniform national standard across Australia in the decade or so following the First World War.

The Maine reform story has been a long and winding legislative and legal tale.

In November 2016 voters approved voter-initiated legislation to apply ranked choice voting to all state elections.

The background to the movement for that reform was that Maine has an unusually independent electoral tradition, breaking up the standard US duopoly of the Republican and Democratic parties

Independents have won election to the positions of state governor and US senator in recent decades, led by the success of current Senator Angus King.

The presence of strong third candidates also means that plurality-winning candidates often lack a majority of the total vote, diminishing their legitimacy.

In 7 of the past 8 elections for state governor, the winning candidate failed to win a 50% majority of votes. The controversial current Governor Paul LePage won with less than 40% in 2010 and again with less than 50% in 2014.

However the 2016 initiative legislation for ranked choice voting did not sit well with many in the state’s political establishment. LePage, most Republican state politicians and some Democrats openly opposed the new voting method.

Constitutional challenges were initiated, leading to an unusual advisory opinion from the State Supreme Court that unanimously concluded that if a full legal challenge was brought, the system would be held inapplicable, but only for elections for the positions in the state legislature and the state governorship. There was no apparent constitutional bar to the system applying to elections to federal congressional positions, or to party primary elections.

The advisory finding has meant that the state’s voters have used preferential voting for today’s June 12 primary ballots, but will use a mix of preferential and plurality voting for the final elections in November.

But meanwhile, the state’s legislature had intervened, passing a law in October 2017 which suspended the application of all preferential voting in 2018.

Voters responded with a formal petition – permitted under the state Constitution – to veto the legislation. They raised sufficient signatures, immediately paralysing the effect of the legislature’s suspension law.

But the matter was also placed on the ballot for today’s elections, which would determine whether the petition veto would be upheld or dissolved.

Todays’s 54% vote thus upholds the petition-based citizen veto of the legislature’s suspension law which had overruled the voter initiated legislation of 2016. However today’s vote does not disturb the Supreme Court’s advisory opinion that the 2016 law might be partially invalid, if it were formally challenged. All very simple.

The actual application of the new system at today’s primary contests was in practice far from universal. Many primaries saw only one contestant nominate. Only four specific contests eventually required preferential voting.

Primary contests within the major parties for November’s legislative elections saw three or more candidates step forward in only two races – one for a Republican party nominee for a state legislative seat and one for a Democratic party nominee for one of the two national congressional districts for the state.

In the former case one candidate won a majority of the first preference votes, concluding the election. In the latter case three candidates ran, but the leading candidate appears to have won 49.7% of the vote to his rival’s 40.6% and 9.7%, so there is little doubt that the leading candidate will prevail when the ballots cast for the third-placed candidate are re-distributed.

Finally, the two more interesting multi-candidate races were the respective party primaries for candidates for the position of state governor.

Four candidates ran for the Republican party’s nomination, but the leading candidate Shawn Moody has secured 56% of the first preference votes, ending the contest.

In the more interesting Democratic party primary for governor seven candidates ran, with the leading vote-getters securing 32%, 28%, 16% and 14% respectively. The preference count will almost certainly see those with the top two first-preference votes – Janet Mills and Adam Cote – in the running for the final result.

Media report of Maine primary election day results: New York Times

The Maine primary ballot paper structure for preferential voting, as in most US elections, is a card suitable for electronic scanning, in which voters fill in small ovals

graphic - Maine 2018 - sample ballot CD2.jpeg

Australian legislative election ballots, by contrast, are completed by voters numbering boxes against each candidate’s name with written numerals ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, and so on.

The historic use of preferential voting in today’s primary elections in Maine may not be the end of the matter, however.

Despite the state law now clearly providing for the use of preferential voting in November (other than for the judicially disputed state governor and state legislative seats), and that law now being approved twice at voter referendums, it remains to be seen if the legislature will have the will to attempt yet further legislation interfering with the preferential voting law between now and November.

Many of the state’s established politicians are clearly determined to thwart the use of preferential voting. Governor LePage has even stated that he may refuse to certify the final results of today’s primary election (although there are other administrative or judicial means of completing the processes in the short term).

Meanwhile, the successful use of the voting method in Maine will encourage electoral reformers in other states, and likely also in Canada.

In overall terms, single-member ranked choice voting is at best a partial advance on single-member plurality voting as a means of electing parliamentary members. But today’s activity in Maine at least represents some break in the near-uniform use of plurality voting in the United States and Canada.

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