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Challenge To Ranked Choice Voting May Still Make November Ballot in Maine – Which Could Help Trump

August 29, 2020

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court may decide whether a referendum seeking to end ranked choice voting in the state makes the ballot in November – and therefore may help decide whether President Donald Trump wins a single electoral vote in Maine in November.

A trial court judge on Monday, August 24 ordered the referendum onto the general election ballot, overturning the decision of the Maine Secretary of State – a Democrat – who initially invalidated enough signatures to keep the measure off the ballot. The Secretary of State on Friday, August 28 appealed the trial court’s decision to the state’s highest court, according to the Bangor Daily News.

Ranked choice voting is the law in Maine, and it is set to be used in races for Congress in November 2020. But if a referendum asking voters to overturn it makes the ballot in November, then ranked choice voting won’t be used in the presidential election.

That could help Trump win Maine’s Second Congressional District in the central and northern part of the state, because he wouldn’t need an outright majority to win. That would give him a single electoral vote from the state.

There are some scenarios where a single electoral vote could be the difference between a major party candidate winning the presidency with 270 electoral votes and tying his competitor in the Electoral College at 269 votes apiece – which would throw the election into the U.S. House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats.

Ranked choice voting provides voters with the option to rank candidates, starting with their first choice and working their way down the ballot.

In Maine, it any candidate wins a majority of votes, that candidate wins the election. But in a multi-candidate race, if no candidate wins a majority, then the bottom finisher is eliminated, and that candidate’s voters’ second selections are counted and added to the vote totals of the remaining candidates. If no candidate has a majority of votes and second selections, then the next-from-the-bottom finisher is eliminated and the process is repeated – and continues until one candidate has a majority of votes plus down-ballot selections.

A ranked choice voting referendum is set to appear on the general election ballot in Massachusetts in November 2020. A recent poll shows voters evenly split on the measure in Massachusetts.

Supporters of ranked choice voting says it prevents candidates who fail to get a majority of votes from winning an election, which they say is a good thing. They also say it encourages more candidates to run for office since they know they may not play the role of spoiler – which supporters also say is a good thing.

Opponents say the system unfairly gives some voters more than one bite at the apple, since not only are their votes counted but also their lower selections – which may sway the election. Opponents also don’t see a problem with a candidate winning an election with a plurality that is less than a majority.

Support for ranked choice voting in Maine generally breaks down along party lines – Democrats support it, Republicans oppose it.

In November 2016, a ranked choice voting referendum, known as Question 5, was approved by Maine voters 50.3 percent to 46.2 percent. (The result was 388,273 for Yes to 356,621 for No, with 26,814 blanks, for a total of 771,798 votes, according to the Maine Secretary of State’s web site.)

The referendum applied to congressional elections and primaries for state offices, but not to general elections for governor or to primary elections or general elections for president.

In November 2018, the new system of counting votes flipped the general election in the state’s Second Congressional District, where the Republican incumbent got a plurality of votes but not a majority. The lower selections of voters for the third-place and fourth-place finishers came into play, and enabled the Democratic challenger to be declared the winner.

In August 2019, the Maine Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, approved a bill extending ranked choice voting to presidential primaries, the presidential general election, and general elections for governor.

That law will not take effect for the November 2020 general election if a referendum challenging the law is on the November 2020 ballot – meaning voters would be given a chance to exercise what the state calls a “people’s veto.”

The Maine Republican Party earlier this year collected about 72,000 signatures to put a referendum challenging ranked choice voting on the ballot, but the Maine Secretary of State invalidated about 11,000 of the signatures, leaving the initiative short.

The Republican Party appealed, and got the Secretary of State to declare several dozen signatures valid. A state trial judge declared on Monday, August 24 that 988 signatures had been improperly invalidated, according to the Bangor Daily News. The total is enough to get the measure on the ballot – if the Maine Supreme Judicial Court lets the trial court decision stand.

Appeals courts often defer to trial court judges on findings of fact, so the Maine Republican Party has the edge in the Secretary of State’s appeal.

The court’s decision has potentially far-reaching consequences in Maine. Former Governor Paul LePage, a Republican who won less-than-50-percent pluralities in 2010 and 2014, has said he plans to run against his successor, Governor Janet Mills, a Democrat, in 2022. If voters repeal ranked choice voting in November 2020, it may help LePage’s chances in 2022.

LePage won a five-race for governor in November 2010 with 37.6 percent of the vote. LePage won re-election in 2014 with 47.7 percent of the vote.

In presidential elections, Maine is a battleground state that leans Democratic. The state is one of two in the country (along with Nebraska) that split electoral votes by congressional district. Whichever candidate wins the statewide vote in Maine gets two of the state’s four electoral votes. The state has two congressional districts, and the winner of each gets a single electoral vote for doing so.

In 2016, Trump lost statewide in Maine by 2.9 percentage points. That gave Hillary Clinton two of Maine’s four electoral votes. Clinton also won the left-leaning First Congressional District in southern Maine, which gave her a third electoral vote.

But Trump won a plurality in the more conservative Second Congressional District covering central and northern Maine, which gave him one electoral vote. Trump fell short of a majority in the Second Congressional District, but in the absence of ranked choice voting, that didn’t matter.



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