Ranked-Choice Voting Put To The Test In Maine

[ Posted Thursday, November 15th, 2018 – 18:00 UTC ]

You'll have to forgive me for writing yet another column on the midterm elections, but Maine has just made a bit of electoral history, and judging from conversations I've had recently with friends, their new voting system is not yet fully understood by all. Which is a shame, because it certainly is an innovation in the way people cast their votes. The jury's still really out on whether it is a good innovation or not, but it certainly is a different way of doing the business of counting votes.

This was the first time Maine voters used their new system in a national election, for their two seats in the House of Representatives. The idea of ranked-choice voting (or, as some call it, "instant-runoff voting") was approved -- twice -- by Maine voters via ballot measure, after the state legislature shot the idea down. The use of ranked-choice was challenged at the state level, and because Maine's constitution explicitly uses the word "plurality," the suit won. So statewide offices don't use the new system, but it is still in place for national offices.

In Maine's second House district , there were four people on the 2018 ballot: incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin, Democrat Jared Golden, and two Independents, Tiffany Bond and William Hoar. As a voter, you were given the choice of ranking your votes for these candidates. Of the four, you got to vote for three of them, since the final round will always be between only two candidates (meaning the possible number of rounds is one less than the total number of candidates -- in this case, four candidates, so three possible rounds of voting). You could mark down your first choice, your second choice, and your third choice. Or you could just mark down two choices, or one, or even none. It's totally up to you. But if you don't rank all three choices then you risk your vote not counting in the final tally.

Let's take a look at four examples for how the ballot could be filled out. The first comes from someone (we'll call her Abigail Adams) who dislikes the two major parties. Abigail fills out her first choice as Hoar, and her second choice as Bond. Abigail thus votes for the two Independents, but refuses to vote for either major party candidate at all, leaving her third choice blank.

Next, we have Billy Budd. Billy's almost as disgruntled with the two major parties as Abigail, but not quite. So he votes for Bond, then Hoar, then Golden (the Democrat).

Then we have Chris Christie (no relation, heh), who is a staunch Democrat (I told you, no relation). Chris votes for Golden, but then gives his second-place vote to Bond and his third-place vote to Hoar, just to vote against everyone who is not a Republican.

And finally, we have Debbie Downer, who is completely loyal to Bond, and only casts her vote for Bond, leaving the rest of her ballot blank.

In the first round of voting, everybody's vote is counted. Abigail votes for Hoar, Billy votes for Bond, Chris for Golden, and Debbie for Bond.

Now, blending our example voters with reality for a moment, what happened after the first round was that Poliquin won by a very slim margin (around 2,600 votes out of over 280,000 cast) -- but, importantly, did not win a simple majority of the votes cast (or 50 percent of them plus one vote). The Election Night totals were (by one news organization's tally):

Bruce Poliquin -- 131,466

Jared Golden -- 129,556

Tiffany Bond -- 16,500

William Hoar -- (roughly) 2,000

[I apologize for the incomplete and slightly contradictory data, but the Maine official government site has not yet posted even the unofficial totals, so I had to piece these numbers together from a variety of media sources.]

This gave both Poliquin and Golden less than 50 percent (they both got around 46 percent). So the second round of voting was triggered. What happens at this point is that Hoar is dropped from the choices altogether, and the votes are tallied for the top three vote-getters.

So let's take a look at how our hypothetical votes would be counted in the second round. Abigail cannot vote for Hoar any more, since he has been dropped. So her second choice is used, and she votes for Bond. Billy's first choice is still in the race, so his first choice vote again goes for Bond. Chris also voted for someone still in the race, so his first choice again goes for Golden. Debbie's choice also survived, so her first choice also goes to Bond.

I must admit, I could find no hard data yet on the outcome of the second round of voting in Maine. This second round was done by computer, and was not the final round, so the media didn't bother reporting the hard numbers for this interim round. But since Hoar only had around 2,000 votes, it still was not enough to push either Golden or Poliquin past the 50 percent mark. After Hoar's 2,000 votes were distributed, a third round became necessary.

The third round is where our examples get interesting. Abigail refused to vote for anyone except the two Independents. But in the third round, Bond is dropped as a choice, leaving only Golden and Poliquin. Therefore, Abigail's vote does not count, since she didn't vote for either of them. It's as if Abigail showed up for a general election and voted, but then refused to vote in a later runoff because she refuses to vote for any major-party candidate.

Billy was a little more pragmatic than Abigail, so because his first two choices have now been dropped (the two Independents), his third-choice vote is cast for Golden. Chris still casts his first-choice ballot for Golden, since Golden is still in the running. Debbie, because she only voted for one candidate (Bond) who has been dropped, also winds up not casting a vote in the third round.

Does any of this help to clarify anything, or am I just making things more complicated? In essence, multiple elections happen simultaneously, rather than holding separate runoff elections. Your vote is yours to do with as you see fit. The system is supposed to let you vote for whomever your heart desires in the first round, but then avoids "throwing your vote away on a third-party candidate" in the subsequent rounds. You can vote for a Green candidate first, and then a Democrat second; or perhaps vote for a Libertarian first, and then a Republican second. That way, you feel good about supporting your party of choice, but also get to have a say in who eventually wins the election. And, as Maine just showed us, this is no longer a hypothetical -- these second and third rounds of voting actually will happen, at times.

The final outcome in Maine is that Golden picked up 44.5 percent of the roughly 18,500 votes that were cast in the first round for either Bond or Hoar. Poliquin only managed to pick up 20.4 percent of these votes, while 35.1 percent didn't go to either major party candidate (Abigail and Debbie, in the above example). In votes, Golden picked up 10,232 while Poliquin only picked up 4,695. Around 8,000 ballots were cast by people like Abigail and Debbie, who refused to vote for either major party candidate, so they were not tallied in the third round of voting. While Poliquin was up by over 2,600 votes on Election Night, the final result was roughly a 3,000-vote margin of victory for Golden:

Jared Golden -- 139,224

Bruce Poliquin -- 136,286

Thus the Democrat has flipped the result, due to the two rounds of instant-runoff votes being cast. Because the Independent voters broke heavily for the Democrat, he has won the election, to put it slightly differently.

Poliquin has already challenged the result in federal court. He's already been ruled against (the judge refused to stop the runoff tabulations), and he will likely lose on the merits of his case as well. His lawyers tried to claim that the U.S. Constitution specifically states a "plurality," but they apparently forgot to actually check the text, because the word simply does not appear in the sections on elections. Of course, Poliquin could appeal it all the way to the Supreme Court (and who knows how newly-sworn-in Justice Fratboy will rule), but past court rulings have upheld the constitutionality of instant-runoff or ranked-choice voting systems, so it's probably a lost cause for Poliquin. The Constitution actually gives the states wide leeway on how they conduct their elections process.

The new system is, admittedly, confusing to grasp at first. And as we've seen in other elections, voters can become confused about all sorts of things on the ballot (hanging chads, butterfly ballots, etc.). But even with a learning curve attached to it, ranked-choice voting certainly is an interesting experiment. It allows people to vote for third parties they know have no real chance of winning, while still being able to weigh in on the eventual result between the two major parties.

Maine seems the perfect place to run such an experiment, because they have a tradition of occasionally actually electing third-party candidates to office. They have (in Angus King) one of only two Independent senators in the U.S. Senate (the other, of course, is Vermont's Bernie Sanders), and they've elected Independent governors before as well. Only Alaska has as strong an Independent tradition as Maine, really. So it's the perfect place to test out a system that allows third parties an actual chance of winning, while also allowing for instant runoffs to take place if no candidate wins a majority of the votes. It'll be worth keeping an eye on the outcome of the legal case, and on Maine elections in the future. Already, candidates are making the argument to some voters: "OK, I understand you don't want to vote for me, but maybe I can convince you to make me your second choice?" That seems like a healthy development to me. It may take years for any other state to adopt the ranked-choice system, so for now I'll be watching future Maine elections to see how it is working out for them.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


14 Comments on “Ranked-Choice Voting Put To The Test In Maine”

  1. [1] 
    neilm wrote:

    Some great columns recently CW. Thanks.

  2. [2] 
    Kick wrote:

    Okay then. Crazy voting, great explaining. :)

  3. [3] 
    Kick wrote:

    CA-45... flipped :)

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Kick -

    The blue wave/tide still hasn't crested.

    CA-45 just called for Dem (bye bye Mimi Waters), and CA-39 just north of it has now flipped, with Dem up by 1K votes. Hasn't been called yet, though.

    Dems still up in UT-4 and NY-22, too. We're now at a net of +36, and it could go as high as +39.

    Blue wave keeps on a-risin'!



  5. [5] 
    Kick wrote:


    Is this pendulum a swinger or what!?

    If Trump can assert to have achieved "very close to complete victory," then I'd say Democrats can lay claim to "exceedingly near to total annihilation;" although, Comrade Trump sure isn't acting as if he's "winning."

    Oops. Don't look now, but I believe someone has "inadvertently" divulged the existence of a sealed indictment for J Ass. Wasn't me. :)

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    in florida news, guy that the racists believe to be racist is now governor elect, while the senate vote is going to a hand recount. i'm very curious how that count will play out - perhaps it will give us a clue as to how many people have actually been disenfranchised or miscounted. considering how loudly rick scott has been screaming about "fraud," it stands to reason that he'd know. he's an expert after all; it's not such a leap from defrauding medicare to defrauding voters.


  7. [7] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    just a parting thought before i dive into my work day:

    "The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway.
    milton meyer - they thought they were free - the germans, 1933-45

  8. [8] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    CW [4]

    Re "Blue Wave keeps a -risin."

    We were assured for months prior to the midterms that those devious Russians were still hacking and electioneering full blast, but I ain't hearin' a single word about hacking from you or anybody around here.

    Is that because Dems/Libs only complain about Russian interferance in our elections when Reps/Cons prevail?

    Seems like a bit of a double standard in evidence here, right?

  9. [9] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Oops - make that read "interference".

  10. [10] 
    lharvey16 wrote:

    [8] nypoet22

    wow, just wow. thanks for the link.

  11. [11] 
    Kick wrote:


    considering how loudly rick scott has been screaming about "fraud," it stands to reason that he'd know. he's an expert after all; it's not such a leap from defrauding medicare to defrauding voters.

    Burn :) Good point! The Trumpublicans screaming the loudest will have to get busy inventing new ways to defraud American voters. Who better than Governor/Senator Scott?

    The margin-of-victory in the 2010 gubernatorial election won by Rick Scott was a paltry 1.2%. In the following election in 2014, Rick Scott was reelected with a tiny 1% margin of victory. Who could have predicted that the margin of victory in the 2018 Florida governor's race would be less than 1%? Practically anybody.

    The disenfranchisement of millions of voters through a myriad of means has been a boon to the GOP in close elections in Florida for quite awhile. Wonder how the "winning through voter suppression" Party will fare now that a supermajority has voted to restore the rights of approximately 10% of the voting age population that had been heretofore permanently disenfranchised? They already tried prohibiting the use of college campus sites in Florida as early voting locations... mustn't make it easier for young educated people to vote. Must get more creative to defraud. #Pathetic

  12. [12] 
    neilm wrote:

    We were assured for months prior to the midterms that those devious Russians were still hacking and electioneering full blast

    Were we? Any evidence?

    You will also find that in this cycle social media sites were running programs to inhibit the mechanisms used by foreign parties in 2016 and closing down accounts, etc.

  13. [13] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    " . . inhibiting the mechanisms and closing the accounts."

    My, my, how convenient. Now we don't have to hear about "collusion" for two more years, right?

  14. [14] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    putin has always tried to subvert our country to his will, the only difference in 2016 is how successful he was. as to donald trump's involvement, i can't speak for anyone else here, but i'll abide by whatever conclusions mueller draws from his findings. maybe donald is completely innocent of any and all wrongdoing in the matter, maybe he directed a conspiracy to betray the united states to russia, probably something somewhere in-between. in whichever case, we'll continue to hear about it for many years, just as we continue to hear about 9/11, pearl harbor or any other attack on our homeland.


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