How Maine's Ranked-Choice Voting System Works
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One of this year's closest U.S. Senate races is in Maine, where Republican Susan Collins is defending her seat. She's running against a Democrat, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, as well as two independent candidates. And the race may turn on the state's ranked-choice voting system, which enables voters to, well, rank their first, second, third and fourth choices among the candidates. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Ranked-choice voting to someone not familiar with the process sounds complex, but Cara McCormick, co-founder of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, says it's something most of us are familiar with.
CARA MCCORMICK: You know, we rank choices in our everyday life all the time. We're always saying, you know, if they don't have the mint chocolate chip ice cream, can you please get me the rocky road?
NAYLOR: The ballot voters will use is pretty straightforward, says Lewiston, Maine, city clerk Kathy Montejo.
KATHY MONTEJO: You fill in the little bubble. It's almost like taking the SAT test, you know, years ago. And you just fill in the little bubbles. So once folks see it, their reaction seems to be, oh, this isn't as bad as I was expecting.
NAYLOR: The ranked-choice voting system was first used in the 2018 elections, so Maine voters are becoming more comfortable and familiar with the process. But Montejo says many still have questions.
MONTEJO: The No. 1 question we always get from folks is, do I have to rank every candidate? Or if I just rank my No. 1 first choice and do not rank the other candidates, will my vote still count? And the answer is yes.
NAYLOR: Ranked-choice voting only comes into play if no candidate receives a majority - that is 50% plus one vote. That happened in 2018 in Maine's second congressional district. Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin received a plurality but not a majority. And after voters' second choices were counted, Democrat Jared Golden won the seat.
In this year's U.S. Senate race, one candidate, independent Lisa Savage, has used ranked-choice voting in her messaging, telling voters to make her their first choice and Democrat Sara Gideon their second choice. This is not good news for Republican Susan Collins, says University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer.
MARK BREWER: In a ranked-choice voting scheme, assuming that Savage's supporters list Gideon second, which Savage is asking them to do, this now turns into a disadvantage for Susan Collins.
NAYLOR: But it's unclear how the votes for the independent candidates will break, with recent polls showing each with roughly the same share of the vote. In a statement, the Collins campaign says there is one clear choice and is encouraging voters to choose Collins as their first choice.
Republicans in the state continue to challenge ranked-choice voting in court because it also applies to the presidential race. Maine gives an electoral vote to the winners of each of the state's congressional districts. And while polls show Democrat Joe Biden with a lead in the state overall, in the rural second district, it's a much closer race, says Anna Keller, director of the Maine League of Women Voters.
ANNA KELLER: The race between Biden and Trump in that district is neck and neck. So if neither gets a majority, the votes cast for a third party or independent candidate may end up playing a role. But instead of being spoilers, those candidates - the second choices will end up probably deciding the vote.
NAYLOR: So Maine's ranked-choice voting system could possibly have an effect not only on the makeup of the U.S. Senate but who wins the presidency.
Brian Naylor, NPR News.
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