Editor's note: This story was updated 7/18 with further background and more detail about how ballots were counted in Maine’s primary.
Two weeks after Maine used ranked-choice voting for the first time in statewide elections, data show that many voters didn’t choose to rank all the candidates, though it’s not clear whether they were confused, exhausted or simply chose to leave some options blank.
In a ranked-choice election, voters rank candidates from most to least preferred. Any candidate who earns more than half the vote wins. If no one passes that threshold, the instant runoff kicks in, and the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. The second-choice votes from those losing ballots are allocated to the remaining candidates. This process, which only requires the original vote, repeats until a candidate gets majority support.
Many election officials think ranked-choice voting is the ideal system to settle candidate-packed elections, while also giving third-party candidates a chance at winning. But some county clerks have expressed concern about new costs and confusion – fears that seem to have been realized in Maine’s Democratic gubernatorial primary earlier this month.
There were 126,139 valid votes cast in Maine’s Democratic primary. In the final round of the instant runoff, however, only 117,250 ballots were counted. The other ballots didn’t count in the final tally because they did not include rankings for the top two candidates, Adam Cote and Janet Mills. That translates to more than 6 percent of original ballots.
A breakdown of the numbers by the Bangor Daily News explained how lower-ranked candidates fell out of the tally with every recount. The newspaper reported an exit poll’s findings that most Democratic voters ranked several choices, but that just a quarter of primary voters ranked all seven gubernatorial choices on the crowded ballot. (On the Republican side, primary voters were more likely to rate just one choice among the four candidates. Shawn Moody, however, won the gubernatorial primary with 56.5 percent in the first round.)
Vlad Kogan, an associate professor of political science at the Ohio State University who has a lot of concerns about ranked-choice voting systems, said the high number of “exhausted” ballots has important implications.
“If the election is close enough and the number of exhausted ballots high enough, the winner will not necessarily win a majority of the votes cast,” he said in an email, “which is one of the arguments for switching to ranked-choice voting in the first place.”
The issue is common, Kogan said. According to his research, it could be a potential problem if minority voters only support minority candidates in elections with ranked-choice voting, but don’t rank other voters. There’s a risk that those ballots won’t be valid by the final round.
“There are some very serious democratic and potentially legal implications,” Kogan said.
As Stateline reported, several local governments have used ranked-choice voting, but in June, Maine was the first to try it statewide.
Lisa Goodwin, Bangor’s city clerk, said many voters were confused by the new system. Of the 4,555 ballots cast in Bangor that day, about 200 were spoiled because of voter error from confusion over ranked-choice voting, she said. That’s far more than she sees in a typical election.
“There were a lot of angry voters,” Goodwin said.
Candace Alden, a voter from Auburn, said she “wholeheartedly” agrees with the concept of ranked-choice voting. Still, she added, “It was slightly confusing. I thought I was more prepared than I actually was.”
Maine voters will use the new system for federal elections this fall, joining nearly a dozen U.S. cities.
“Ranked-choice voting gives voters more choice over the process,” said state Rep. Seth Berry, a Democrat who has supported the new system. “If they choose to rank three candidates, they can do that. If they chose one candidate, they can. If they choose to rank seven, that’s fine too. That’s part of the beauty of it.”