Mills won the Democratic primary, but did ranked-choice voting work?

The winner of the Democratic gubernatorial primary, by technical knockout in the fourth round, is Janet Mills.

Why a TKO over her six opponents, rather than a Balboa-esqe KO? We’ve got to go to the tape.

If you look closely, 131,330 Maine Democrats cast ballots. Mills won with 62,959 votes in Round 4. So, out of all ballots cast, she earned 47.9 percent.

In the fourth round, 14,899 ballots were “invalid.” Voters either “overvoted” — marking multiple candidates the same rank — or “undervoted,” by not participating or by ranking fewer candidates than they were allowed, or “exhausted” the number of choices they had. Doing the quick math, more than 11 percent of Maine Democrats who took to the polls on Election Day didn’t have their vote counted in the final round. These voters did not want either Mills or Adam Cote, the two candidates who made it to the final round, to be their nominee.

This isn’t a knock on the staff working under Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, or the town clerks throughout our state.  They are all honest, dedicated, hardworking public servants attempting to carry out the requirements of Maine law. It is simply an outcome of the ranked-choice voting system.

Maine election officials began collecting ranked-choice ballots on June 14 in Augusta. (AP Photo/Marina Villeneuve)

This information is important, as the policy question of ranked-choice voting remains outstanding. Question 1, the ballot question to keep ranked-choice voting, won statewide, no doubt. Yet the Maine Constitution clearly prohibits the use of ranked-choice voting in general elections for state offices. So something has to give; either the Legislature will pass a constitutional amendment asking voters whether they want to remedy the conflict, they will “veto the veto,” or they will do nothing and we will just have a hybrid electoral system.

Advocates will claim — credibly — that voters have now twice supported this law, and legislators should fall in line. However, it is not quite that simple. Majorities in Aroostook, Androscoggin, Oxford, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Somerset, and Washington counties all voted against ranked choice voting, with Franklin a coin flip pending final results.

That means senators and representatives in those areas can probably refuse to push forward a constitutional amendment without electoral consequence. After all, they would just be reflecting the vote of their district. Why should a state representative from Medway care that Kennebunk voted overwhelmingly in favor when his or her constituents didn’t?

This is the exact challenge of the initiative process. Intense support in some geographic areas can overcome diffuse opposition in others. But, since we have a representative government, that opposition may carry the day in the legislative arena.

So what is the answer?

Well, we have a representative government. One option is for ranked-choice voting supporters to extend their campaign to the 186 districts across the state, responsible for electing 151 representatives and 35 senators. They need to elect 101 like-minded state representatives and 24 like-minded state senators to send an amendment out to the ballot. It is a big challenge, but not impossible. It is also reflects the genius of the American system; people come together into groups to pursue shared goals and affect public policy.

Another option is for the Legislature to react. For those who continue to oppose ranked-choice voting, whether for their own reasons or on behalf of their constituents, it has become clear that there is support for electoral reform. Thus far, Maine people have only been offered one option on what that reform looks like.

Augusta can take some time to review the results of our ranked-choice primary and make public policy choices. Mills received the support of less than 48 percent of Democrats; did ranked-choice work as intended? Are we OK with a system that resulted in the choices of 11 percent of Democratic voters being rendered invalid? Do we think that number goes down if we spend money on public information campaigns? By how much, for how much?

Or, there are other electoral reform options beyond ranked-choice voting. A traditional runoff — subject to constitutional control if it occurs after November — is one, mirroring what Lewiston does for its mayor. So-called “jungle primaries” — like California and Washington run — are another.

But what is clear is that, if two-thirds of either the current or next Legislature do not believe ranked-choice voting is the proper type of reform, they will need to propose an alternative. Because it is not simply going to go away.

So they need to go to work. And knock out a solution.

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.