Election 2020

Great Lobster and a More Equitable Voting System Exists in Maine

Ranked Choice Voting

Jonathan Cervas


By: Anjali Akula, Jonathan Cervas, Elsie Goren

Photo by James Fitzgerald on Unsplash

On November 3, voters in Maine will choose their next U.S. senator in a way that no former senator has been chosen before — under a ranked-choice voting system (RCV). Maine’s government adopted this system by ballot initiative in 2016, with elections to the House of Representatives in 2018 occurring under this new method. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it may seem complicated. However, ranked-choice voting is actually an intuitive way to cast your ballot that gives each voter increased influence. Maine’s presidential electors will also be decided using the same system.

In a ranked-choice system, a voter may rank several or all of the candidates on the ballot in order of preference. In a typical ranked-choice voting system, the votes ranked first on all the ballots are summed. If any candidate receives over 50% of the total vote, they are the winner, mirroring a ‘first past the post’ rule used in most federal elections. If no candidate reaches the majority threshold, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated. Unlike typical elections in the United States, however, these voters are given additional efficacy and the candidate they ranked second now gets added to the vote totals. This new total is summed and if a candidate now reaches a majority, he or she becomes the winning candidate. This process continues until any candidate has over 50% of the vote.

Run-off elections are not new in the United. Many states use run-off elections to guarantee the winner has majority support, but often the run-off election is held at a later date. This usually means a lower turnout in the final stage. In Maine, however, the system is sometimes referred to as an “instant run-off” with all voting occurring simultaneously.

Maine has recently transitioned to ranked-choice voting from the system that most of America uses — a plurality rule, where the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of whether or not he or she earns a majority. This is also known as a winner-take-all election because a candidate wins so long as they have the most votes, though not necessarily a majority of votes. Opponents of ranked-choice voting argue that it complicates the election process for voters and leads ballots to be eliminated in the case that only some candidates are ranked.

We studied the ranked-choice voting data from the 2018 Congressional election in the second district of Maine and investigated the efficacy of this voting system as it relates to Maine. These are the benefits of ranked-choice voting that we have found:

Ensures candidate with the most support wins

In a ranked-choice voting system, there is never an election where the winning candidate will not have the support of a majority of those casting valid ballots. This is because of the redistribution process that allows second and third-place votes to be counted towards the final count of a candidate’s vote.

In most ranked-choice voting systems, including Maine’s, people have the option to choose only one, or a subset of all candidates, and can choose not to rank those with which they disagree. Therefore, it is clear that every candidate that a voter ranked is someone that the voter actually wants to represent them, or that they are free to express the order in which they would choose candidates. This system guarantees that the winner has a consensus of the majority of voters for every election cycle even if that winner was not the first choice of a plurality of voters.

Using the new rank choice rule in 2018 in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, candidate Bruce Poliquin won just a plurality of votes in the first round — over 50% of voters chose a different candidate. Under the old rule, he would have been the winner. Instead, the instant run-off mechanism kicked in and the supporters of the candidates with the lowest totals had their second more preferred candidate elevated. In the subsequent round, more of these voters chose Jared Golden, who now had the support of more than 50% of voters. He is elected representative.

More inclusive of third parties

The winner-take-all election system encourages the polarization of the two-party system and actively discourages the inclusion of third parties. This has resulted in the stigma that voting for a third party is simply throwing away your vote. However, in the 2016 presidential election alone, there were almost 7 million people who voted for third parties nationwide. If these voters had been given an option between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, they would have determined the outcome since the third-party vote totals were more than enough to flip the result in a handful of pivotal states.

Ranked-choice voting allows those people and anyone else who desires to vote third party to have a genuine contribution to the election in a way that is more substantial than taking away from the main parties. This is because they can vote for the third party first and any main parties second or third. Therefore, even if the third party candidate is eliminated, the person’s vote still counts and is redistributed to a major candidate. It may also prove to be a way for third-party candidates to break through and eventually win, since voters from the two main parties may find the third party alternatives more palatable, more moderate, or more in line with their own preferences.

Greater voter turnout

By providing voters with meaningful choices, ranked-choice voting has the potential to increase voter turnout. Independent voters who may have previously abstained from voting, given that their candidate was unlikely to win against a Democrat or Republican, have a greater incentive to turn out for election day under a rank-order system. Hence, voters feel free to support their preferred candidate, rather than settle for a candidate who has a better chance.

The data supports this as well. According to an analysis (Fairvote.org) of the six largest cities using RCV, voter turnout is significantly stronger in RCV races than previous ones in which plurality voting was used. Additionally, the voter turnout for races in these cities was higher than concurrent non-RCV races in similar cities. Ultimately, allowing voters to rank candidates promotes greater turnout in elections as individuals can express their preferences in a more worthwhile way. Indeed, turnout increased in the first rank choice election contest in Maine, although the increase was only modest.

Potential to decrease polarization

Because ranked-choice voting essentially allows people to choose multiple candidates, this new system of voting has the potential to promote more positive campaigning. There have been multiple instances in Maine where positive campaigning has occurred. For instance, in Maine’s 2020 Senate election, independent candidate Lisa Savage has encouraged voters to rank her first and then rank the Democratic candidate Sara Gideon second. In another example, during the 2018 gubernatorial election, candidates Betsy Sweet and Mark Eves actually ran campaign ads together where they used ranked-choice voting as part of their messaging.

In a ranked-choice voting system, a candidate cannot simply worry about attracting their own base or demobilizing their opponent's supporters, but instead must engage other voters in hopes of getting second and third rankings. As shown by the candidates running in Maine during RCV elections, this could have the effect of positive campaigning and hence less polarization.

Opposition to ranked-choice voting

Opponents of ranked-choice voting contend that it will create more election problems rather than solve the current problems under our system. They argue that ranked-choice voting has the potential to confuse voters who may not understand the new system. Consequently, governments would be forced to enact mass education efforts to transition the population to the RCV system. The opposition to rank choice voting is bi-partisan, with Democratic governors in California vetoing enabling legislation twice in the past.

However, a city clerk in Maine who has seen ranked-choice voting run in the 2018 elections says that once people see the ballots, they find the process simple and intuitive. Indeed, voters need to do no more than to vote for their preferred candidate to cast an effective ballot. Ranking more than one voter is optional. The federal court in Maine agrees with this characterization.

Additionally, opponents argue that there is a greater chance for ballots to be eliminated, which prevents voters from having a say in the outcome of a race. Imagine a scenario in which an individual ranks two candidates who are both eliminated, thus it seems as if the voter had no say in the vote. These ballots are known as “exhausted” votes and it is possible to have a voter’s choice eliminated after the first round. However, this is most usefully compared to voting for a losing candidate in a plurality system. It’s not that the vote does not count, but that the vote went to a candidate who did not get a plurality.

For the reasons above, ranked-choice voting is a more equitable and inclusive system than the current plurality rules system. The benefits of this new system would help facilitate third parties into the larger American political dialogue, encourage more positive campaigning, and ensure a majoritarian winner in every election.

Maine’s new voting system could be very consequential in this year’s Senate election. Ranked-choice voting will be used in the election with incumbent Senator Susan Collins and well-funded Democratic opponent Lisa Gideon. The race also has two independent candidates, Lisa Savage and Max Linn. Polls currently show Gideon holding a slim 3 point lead against Collins, but does not have the support of a majority; how voters use ranked-choice voting will ultimately determine if the incumbent candidate will win this election. In this way, we hope that ranked-choice voting will continue to shape our institutions in a way that is more representative of the American people.

Jonathan Cervas is a post-doctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University in the Institute for Politics and Strategy. He is an expert on American elections and representation. He is also a member of the Electoral Innovation Lab at Princeton University and was a co-author of an amicus brief with the group in the rank choice voting case Haopian v. Dunlap. Anjali Akula and Elsie Goren are undergraduate students at Carnegie Mellon University.



Jonathan Cervas

Carnegie Mellon University | Institute for Politics and Strategy | Postdoctoral Fellow