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Ranked choice rolls out in Maine, picks up steam elsewhere
By M. Mindy Moretti
Earlier this month, with the nation, and no doubt some folks around the world watching, Maine conducted the United States’ first statewide election using the ranked-choice voting system.
Voters in Maine first approved the use of ranked-choice voting in 2016 for a roll out in 2018 and while there were lawsuits right up to just about the last minute seeking to halt the implementation of the system, voters headed to the polls on June 12 and although the reviews were mixed from voters, overall the rollout was deemed successful.
“It went as smoothly as we could have hoped,” Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said. “We had tremendous support from the town clerks, as well as our partners in Elections Systems and Software and General Courier. They brought a lot of reliable expertise to the process.”
For Maine’s implementation of ranked-choice voting, instead of counting the ballots at that city/county level, all the memory sticks were transported via courier to the capital where they were counted.
That transport was part of what lead to higher costs for the primary, which cost the state about $360,000 instead of $250,000 on average for a plurality-primary.
“However,” Dunlap said, “we did it on the cheap. There was no overtime involved, and we minimized the technology we could acquire and deploy. Going forward, we’ll need more of a budget. We had originally estimated $1.5 million for the initial rollout.”
This was not the first foray into ranked-choice voting in Maine. The city of Portland has used ranked-choice voting in the past and Dunlap said that was helpful to the statewide process, particularly to helping explain to voters so they could easily understand their part in the process. Dunlap said it also gave the state a predictive model to look at, which was helpful.
Although the roll-out proved successful, Dunlap said that it was definitely a learning lesson and will inform their work moving forward. And with voters stopping a referendum to repeal the use of ranked-choice, it will be used again.
“Everything we did, we did for the first time. We developed a much better idea of what we should test ahead of time, and also that being transparent in the process served us very well,” Dunlap said. “We were also mindful that the weather was very cooperative—something that isn’t so guaranteed in November. That understanding will help inform our timelines going forward.”
It remains unclear if Maine’s successful rollout will encourage other states to implement ranked-choice voting, but Dunlap has some thoughts for those in the weeds of implementation.
“It’s very difficult to move forward without consensus. Our process was dogged by disagreement within the legislature and a lack of foresight in implementation by the proponents—for example, the initiated legislation made no accounting for ballot retrieval, rulemaking, or budgetary needs,” Dunlap said. “Now that we’ve been through all that, those jurisdictions that are interested could look at our experience for what to do and not do.”
Early this year, Santa Fe New Mexico rolled out ranked choice voting for the first time. Voters that we talked to were pleased with the roll out and by-and-large felt that the education campaign around the roll out was satisfactory.
It took four rounds to determine a winner, but the results were known by the next day.
“I had never really heard of it [ranked-choice voting] before this, but it was well explained and pretty well administered,” said Ambassador Bill Richardson who also served as New Mexico’s governor from 2003 to 2011. “My candidate did not win, but I decided that I like the system because my third choice won so that meant my vote counted.”
Richardson voted early in the March municipal election and said that the poll workers working at city hall early voting site were informative and helpful about the new voting system. Richardson noted that the only confusion he heard about was from a friend who wanted to know if there was going to be a runoff election, which he explained there was not, thanks to ranked-choice voting.
FairVote’s Rob Richie pointed out that in Santa Fe, which has a large Hispanic population and had little time to implement the new system due to lawsuits, turnout increased by more than 10 percentage points and that 99.9 percent of mayoral voters cast a valid ballot, and 96 percent of those ballots were still counting for a finalist after more than a third of ballots went from one of the three defeated candidates to next choices.
“What we’ve come to believe is that sensible ballot design and instructions is the key for voters handling their ballot,” Richie said. “What then becomes important is explaining why to rank candidates and how it might affect outcomes. It’s obviously important for voters to trust the outcome, and that’s why we spend more time now working with candidates, civic groups and journalists after a jurisdiction begins to use RCV.”
Santa Fe resident Matthew Ruybal voted absentee in the March primary and said that while he was aware of ranked choice voting system, he didn’t know too much about it.
“The [absentee] ballot did come with an instruction sheet and how to fill it out,” Ruybal said. “It was helpful, but there was a lot of social media, test ballots and community ‘trainings’ held [before the election]. It took about a minute to fill out.”
While the system was easy to use, Ruybal isn’t so sure he’s sold on the concept.
“After using the new system, it wasn't complex, but having to vote for every candidate seems unnecessary, especially for ones I don't agree with,” Ruybal said.
Another city in New Mexico — Las Cruces — will be rolling out ranked choice in 2019. The city council unanimously adopted ranked-choice voting earlier this month. At the time of the vote, Councilmember Jack Eakman said, "I have received so many comments in favor of ranked-choice voting that I myself am going to be behind this resolution."
Elections in Las Cruces are conducted by the county, but according to City Clerk Linda Lewis, the city’s public information officer will be working the county on education/outreach to voters. Lewis said that officials have spoken with their counterparts in Santa Fe about implementation.
“We’re excited about offering voters this option and are planning our campaign to inform voters. We plan on working with a coalition of community partners to inform voters about the change,” explained Scott Krahling, Dona Ana County clerk. “Our office has a nonpartisan Election Advisory Council that is a coalition of community partners who can help us make sure accurate information is widely distributed.”
Krahling said the county is are already working with partners who have worked on successfully implementing RCV and are incorporating lessons learned.
“We want to offer people the opportunity to demonstrate the new style, and engage with us on why this changes is so important to the future of democracy,” Krahling said. “Given that communities have successfully implemented RCV with much shorter windows of time, I’m very optimistic and excited about doing the hard work to make this a success.”
So what’s next for ranked-choice voting? Will we see more states adopting the voting system or will cities and counties, like Benton, Oregon, continue to take the lead.
“The last year of ranked choice voting elections provides a great opportunity to focus on how lessons from RCV in practice can be applied to address problems with elections like expensive runoffs and crowded primaries,” Richie said. “With the general trend toward jurisdictions and election vendors increasing readiness to run RCV, with best practices easily available from the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, and with more candidates getting the playbook on how to run effective RCV campaigns, we’ve seen a string of well-run RCV election. In each case, RCV surpassed expectations -- in increased voter turnout, in clearly effective voter use of the system, and in the generally more civil tone and increased substance of the campaigns.”
Richie said that the successful roll out in Maine shows that ranked-choice is not too difficult for voters to understand, an argument that opponents of the voting system often argument. Using the system, 99.7 percent of gubernatorial voters cast a valid ballot.
“It’s natural to want to make sure that voters can handle changes to their ballot, but ranked choice voting holds up quite well to scrutiny,” Richie said. “Maine, for example, is in the bottom half of states in income and about average in its percentage of high school graduates.”
By early 2019, FairVote expects to have four regional coordinators supporting local reformers, with the goal of a stand-alone organization or at least a group of people to connect with in every state.
“It’s exciting for us to see the wide range of policymakers and reformers showing interest in RCV for different reasons - like saving money and increasing turnout by folding runoffs into one election and addressing the issue of low percentage winners in crowded fields,” Richie said. “That interest has come from the likes of the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post, but also charter commissions in small towns and state legislators in states in every part of the country.”
(Editor’s Note: FairVote, an organization supportive of ranked-choice voting, receives general support from Democracy Fund, but not for the expressed purpose of RCV.
The Center for Civic Design, an organization that works to ensure election materials are clear for voters, receives general support from Democracy Fund and has provided information and best practices on the implementation of ranked-choice voting.)
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