On Tuesday, voters in Maine chose nominees for federal and statewide office using the state’s new system for instant-runoff voting (IRV), both firsts in U.S. history. Voters simultaneously approved a referendum to keep IRV in place by a 54-46 margin, with 86 percent of precincts reporting. That victory showed increased support for IRV (also called ranked-choice voting), which first passed at the ballot by a smaller 52-48 spread in 2016. Consequently, IRV will be used for Maine’s primaries and for general elections at the federal level for the foreseeable future. However, it may not be put to use for state-level general elections, as we’ll explain below.
First, though, we’ll delve into the mechanics, since IRV is seldom-used in the United States (though it’s more popular in other countries). Maine’s new system lets voters rank their candidates in order of preference, choosing as many or as few candidates as they please. If no one wins a majority in the first round, the last-place candidate is eliminated and has their votes redistributed to their voters’ subsequent preferences.
This process repeats until one candidate obtains a majority. However, the “instant” part of the runoff isn’t necessarily so instant: Because of the particulars of how the state and municipalities administer elections in Maine, the counting in races where no candidate took a first-round majority will continue next week.
So why did Mainers have to vote on whether to keep IRV in place less than two years after deciding to implement it in the first place? In short, hostility from the legislature. Because Maine doesn’t permit voters to propose their own constitutional amendments, the 2016 ballot measure only had the force of an ordinary statute, which meant that lawmakers could repeal it, as long as they were willing to subvert the will of the public.
And indeed they were: Last year, nearly every Republican legislator, along with a handful of Democrats, voted for a law that would have effectively repealed IRV. To block this repeal, reformers put this latest measure on Tuesday’s ballot, a so-called “people’s veto” that has the effect of un-doing the legislature’s attempt to eliminate IRV.
There’s another complication as well. Back in 2017, the state Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion saying that IRV ran afoul of language in the state constitution saying that only a plurality is necessary for a candidate to win a state-level election, such as a race for governor. (This wording doesn’t apply to primaries or to federal races of any kind.)