Ranked Choice Voting

By Jon Olsen

Well informed readers will know that we in Maine succeeded in becoming the first in the country to initiate a vote for ranked choice voting (RCV) statewide with a referendum and winning that vote 52-47 percent last November. However, there is a problem. The opponents of our victory requested the Maine Supreme Court to offer an opinion on its Constitutionality, on the basis of RCV in its function requires a majority for the final result, but the Constitution just mandates a plurality. We had legal experts of high caliber expressing the view that it was likely Constitutional, since “majority” encompasses “plurality.” I was present when arguments for both sides made their case to a packed courtroom over a month ago. Last week their opinion (not a ruling, as there was no case brought) was rendered unanimously that it was unconstitutional as of now. However, the Constitution makes reference only to races in the general election for governor and legislative races, it does NOT affect primaries , nor races for federal office.

Accordingly, as of now, the RCV initiative is the law of the land in every race, but practically, it is very likely that anyone losing in the races covered by this opinion would challenge the law on Constitutional grounds, and most likely would win that appeal. Yesterday, June 1, a rally was held in Augusta in support of RCV with spirited short speeches by 5 people, including myself, with media in attendance. Today, June 2, there was a 4 hour hearing on two relevant but contradictory bills. The first bill, which we supported, asked the legislature to initiate a Constitutional amendment in order to comply with the high court’s opinion, and to implement RCV for 2018 those elections on which the Constitution is silent. The other bill repeals RCV in Maine entirely.

I was there for the entire testimony, again, quite spirited, and testified myself for the Maine Greens. Probably 25-30 people, besides the legislators who testified as sponsors or co-sponsors, gave testimony, the vast majority of whom were supportive of our position, including the current mayor of Augusta. In my testimony, I pointed out that we Greens had been centrally involved in getting Portland to approve RCV for mayor several years ago. In that race, 15 candidates ran, and our Green candidate made it to 4th rank before being eliminated. It ran smoothly, and people liked it since it significantly reduced negative campaigning. Eventually a winner was declared with (I think) 56% of the final tally.

In all practicality, the chance of getting a Constitutional amendment passed by the required 2/3 of both houses of the current legislature is slim to none, and even if it succeeded, almost certainly would be vetoed by the governor, who is like a political twin of Mr. Trump. So, we have to be satisfied with “half a loaf” at the present, if the bill to repeal RCV is defeated. Since the governor is term limited by 2018, we fervently wanted RCV to be in place by then for that race. Yet another high hurdle. But then, I was a hurdler in high school and college.

Jon Olsen
co-chair Maine Green Independent Party