By Scott Thistle, State Politics Editor
LEWISTON — A group that hopes to ask voters statewide to change the way Maine votes in 2016 will begin its campaign in earnest later this month.
Ranked Choice Voting Maine wants Maine to become the first state in the U.S. to fully use a ranked-choice ballot system for its elections and has gathered the more than 61,123 signatures from registered voters needed to add a ballot question to next November's election.
Former state Sen. Dick Woodbury, a Yarmouth independent and a spokesman for the group, said they expect to turn their signatures into Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap on Oct. 19. Woodbury says the signature-gathering drive started in October 2014 and has collected more than 70,000 signatures. He said the group collected more than 40,000 signatures on Election Day 2014.
Ranked-choice voting would allow voters to rank candidates in multi-candidate races in order of preference, creating a so-called "instant runoff" for when no single candidate gets more than 50 percent of the total vote.
The system, according to Woodbury, ensures that the candidate with the largest number of votes would be elected. Woodbury and other supporters of the change note that nine of the past 11 gubernatorial races in Maine have been won by a candidate who received less than 50 percent of the vote.
Only Joseph Brennan in 1982 with 61.9 percent of the vote and Angus King in 1998 with 58.6 percent won election with more than 50 percent.
Besides being a more fair system for candidates, ranked-choice voting also ensures every voter matters because his or her second and third choice can play a role in the outcome of an election, Woodbury said.
"People who know about ranked-choice voting or have heard about ranked-choice voting are very supportive of the idea, but there is a significant number of people that haven't heard about it before, and we've got a year to do a significant education effort across the state," Woodbury said.
How does it work? On Election Day, a voter ranks in order of preference their top three candidates, with their favorite candidate ranked in the No. 1 spot.
If a candidate receives 50 percent plus one of the top-spot votes, that candidate is elected. But if no candidate receives 50 percent plus one of the top votes, the candidate with the lowest number of top vote choices is eliminated and an instant runoff takes place between the remaining candidates counting second-place and, if necessary, third-place votes to see which candidate has the highest total number of votes to become the winner.
A number of cities in the U.S. have adopted ranked-choice voting including Portland, which uses the method in its mayoral races.
A handful of states also use ranked-choice voting for their overseas ballots, according to Woodbury.
Woodbury said ranked-choice voting would help return politics to middle ground and would require candidates to gain support from a true majority of voters, not just a solid base that happens to equal more than the total of the other competing candidates.
"I think there is a lot that's wrong with politics right now," Woodbury said. "And you certainly see that when you ask the public . . . people's view of politics is pretty low right now; it's a view that government is pretty dysfunctional and not a good situation."
Woodbury said by pushing candidates from the extremes of a "hyper-partisan" system, voters would get elected officials that are there to make policy for the majority and not for the various special interests that continue to drive the divisions in politics today.
The current election system that allows voters to pick just their favorite candidate doesn't work well when there are more than two candidates on the ballot, Woodbury said.
"As soon as you have three, four, five candidates — or pretty much every governor's race for the last four or five years — all but one have had multiple candidates," Woodbury said. "And we are in a situation where the winner is not winning with a pure majority; they are winning typically with less than a majority — meaning most people are not voting for the person who wins under our current system."
The current system props up a brand of politics that depends on divisiveness in campaigns instead of coalition building, he said. It also frequently compels voters to cast strategic votes for the candidate they believe has the best chance to win instead of voting for the candidate they favor most.
In a ranked-choice system, the voter would be able to select the candidate they like best and then select the candidate they like second best and still know their vote is going to count, Woodbury said.
"So all these questions of spoiler effect, and dividing the vote and strategic voting, they all become a big part of the campaign conversations," Woodbury said. "Rather than a purist evaluation, a substantive evaluation of all of the things you really want elections to be focused on, they are getting subsumed to some degree by these strategic issues."
Woodbury also said the current system provides an incentive for campaigns to be negative.
"If you only need to hold on to 30 or 35 percent of the vote to win, your basic campaign method is going to be (to) embrace your 30-35 percent but knock down everybody else, get them below the 30 or 35 percent level so that you win with the largest of the minority or the plurality vote," Woodbury said. "So that changes entirely if you, in fact, need to get a pure majority, because you need to reach out to a broader group. You need to be appealing to a larger portion of the population, is what you want to have as a majority winning candidate."
The question will ask voters to have Maine apply ranked-choice voting to all statewide elections, including the state's congressional, legislative and gubernatorial races.
So far, no official group has formed in opposition to the campaign, but Woodbury said they expect that will happen. He said the campaign has most recently been trying to reach out to the public with letters to the editor in newspapers statewide. The group has also been hosting house parties to educate people about the system and to raise funds for the campaign.
Supporters of the campaign include the League of Women Voters of Maine, Common Cause and FairVote. Woodbury said that, surprisingly, politicians from both sides of the aisle also seem to be embracing the change.
Woodbury said most people are very understanding and passionate of the problems in American politics that ranked-choice voting is trying to fix, which run the gamut from excessive money in campaigns to the bombardment of negative attack ads each political season to a system that doesn't play to the majority but to the fringes of the various political ideologies.
"People almost across the board are supportive of the notion," Woodbury said. "Those who understand how it works are like, 'Boy, do we need this' and 'Where do I sign up?'"
When they were collecting signatures on Election Day in 2014, Woodbury said some voters were so thrilled to see a campaign push to change the state's voting system they wanted to hug those gathering signatures.
"So there is some really powerful enthusiasm that you get from some," Woodbury said. He said another reaction was from people who had some difficulty in fully understanding how a new voting system would work but were interested in learning more.
"We realize that once you describe it, people kind of get it and why it matters," Woodbury said.