Hanging chad type problems could come to Maine with ranked-choice voting

Remember the “hanging chad” guy? During the 2000 presidential election, his picture was made famous, lifting his glasses and staring intently a ballot to try and divine the voter’s intent.

I’m a little concerned we may have a Down East version this June.

I’ll save my “your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine” predictions as to the election’s outcomes for next week, but here is a sneak preview: one of the statewide primary races will go to a recount.

Cue the “hanging chad.” We will have dozens — if not hundreds — of vote counters in Augusta reviewing each ballot, trying to decide in which round the presumptive winner received the vote. And it will probably take awhile. And there will probably be some silly pictures.

An election worker in Florida reviews a ballot during a recount in the 2000 presidential election.
Photo by U.S. Department of State

One of the challenges with the ongoing ranked-choice voting saga comes down to, as with most political issues, your pocketbook. More specifically, the cost of administering an election where there are literally thousands of different possible ways to mark a ballot. To do so efficiently, the responsible course of action would have included spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for voting machines for areas which do not have them. Setting aside the commotion about Russian hacking, machines are better at counting that people. But they cost money.

Ranked-choice voting proponents did not include any dollars for those purchases in the law they drafted. They hoped it would pass at the polls, and then the Legislature would be compelled to find funding in the state treasury.

But, as many Mainers pointed out, ranked-choice voting stands in conflict with the Maine Constitution. While the advocates waved the concern away, the Maine Supreme Court ultimately stepped in and — unanimously — said it violated the “plurality” provisions for many elections adopted after Joshua Chamberlain saved our state — again.

So when it passed at the ballot box, we were left with an open question. Do we hit pause on ranked-choice voting while the problems are sorted out? Do we invest a bunch of money in new voting machines for ranked-choice voting, while conducting our constitutional elections under the old method? Or some other solution?

The Legislature chose the first option. Run all elections in the same manner, conforming to the Maine Constitution, while the ranked-choice issues are solved. It seemed a reasonable approach. Further, to the extent advocates had concerns legislators would not propose a constitutional amendment, they were free to canvass all 151 state House and 35 state Senate districts to make their case and elect like-minded individuals.

Instead, they chose a different option. They collected signatures to put a people’s veto on the ballot. This paused the pause enacted by the Legislature, and left us where we are today.

I’ll offer another prediction. There will be a larger percentage of invalid ballots in this primary than we have ever had in Maine before.

That is the problem with winging this. Ranked-choice voting is a wholesale overhaul of our electoral system. To do it right would have required significant time, effort, and, yes, money, to help educate voters on how to do it correctly. But if some voters choose two No. 1s on June 12, their vote simply won’t count.

Now, some of those voters would probably make mistakes regardless. Like our friends in Florida, who gave us the hanging chad. But our electoral system should not include headline photos of men lifting their glasses and staring intently at a piece of paper.

That is why a “no” vote on Question 1 is in order. The Bangor Daily News’ editorial board offered credible commentary on the issue, and reached the same conclusion. A no vote is simply a pause.

Maybe the ranked-choice advocates can turn their attention away from road signs and television ads and instead work to elect their favored candidates in each and every Maine legislative race. If they are successful, they can then pass a constitutional amendment and put the policy forward correctly.

Or maybe we should explore alternative electoral reforms. A “top-two primary” could provide many of the same benefits of ranked choice voting, while reducing the chance for ballot confusion or mistakes. Voters could get an understanding of the differences between the candidates; the critique of the party candidates for governor — in both parties — is that there isn’t any significant policy daylight between them.

Whether I think Mainers will actually choose “no” will have to wait until next week. But I fear hanging chads are in our future. I just hope I’m wrong.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.