Last fall, Maine voters passed an experiment in voting that no state has ever before tried: ranked-choice voting. It’s an experiment some say could change the national calculus against third parties, as I’ll explain below. But the state’s Republican-led Senate asked Maine’s Supreme Court to rule on the system — and the court recently issued an advisory ruling that ranked-choice violates the state constitution. So why would anyone be interested in ranked-choice voting — and why are Maine’s Republicans fighting it? Okay, what’s ranked-choice voting, and why would it be unconstitutional? A voter ranks candidates from one to six. If no candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, the last-placed candidate is dropped. Ballots for the dropped candidate move to the next-ranked person on each ballot.
The process repeats until one person has a majority. Slate’s Henry Grabar explains the system this way:
Also known as “instant runoff” voting, the system makes third-party candidates more viable by eliminating the spoiler effect. Voters who picked the candidate with the fewest first-place votes have their votes instantly reallocated until one candidate has a majority.
But that word “majority” is the problem. According to Maine’s Supreme Court, the system violates a state constitutional rule that winners only need the most votes — a plurality — and not a majority. Ranked-choice requires a majority. If the candidate who gets the most first-choice votes — a plurality — has fewer than 50 percent plus one, ranked-choice doesn’t award him or her the office. Rather, it drops the last-place candidate and keeps adding up the newly available votes.
No Maine governor has won a majority of votes since 1998. One or more independent candidates have held the balance in each of those elections.