Maine's innovative bottom-up approach
Maine organizers continued to face opposition from the legislature throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, so they decided to take a bottom-up approach to gain support. They pivoted to enacting RCV in local municipalities. When Portland, the state's most populous city, was electing its decennial charter commission in 2010 to review their city's constitution, RCV organizers worked to elect RCV supporters on the commission. Their efforts proved fruitful as the city began electing its officials using RCV a year later.
Big Problems, Big Solutions
Eventually, organizers and supporters had enough of the inaction with the state legislature and decided to file a ballot initiative in October 2014. The minimum requirement at the time was 61,123 signatures, and within one year, over 75,000 signatures were collected. The initiative would become Maine Question 5 in 2016, which passed 52% to 48%. In my interview with former state Rep. Diane Russell on my podcast, the RCV Roundtable, she attributed much of the winning strategy to the cross-partisan coalition formed and the vital education campaign. She also highlighted the way signature gathering boosted the movement: "When you take big problems [our current political system], match them with a big solution [RCV], and give people a small way to interact with the big solution–where truly the hands of many make light work–that is when real change happens."
Unfortunately, the tough battle for Maine's RCV implementation was just starting. The Maine Senate in early 2017 requested the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to provide an advisory opinion on the constitutionality of RCV in Maine. On May 23, 2017, the court issued their statement suggesting that RCV was unconstitutional for state races (not federal) because the Maine constitution requires state officials to be elected by a plurality of votes. The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting pushed back on this reasoning as a majority is always, by definition, a plurality. The damage had been done, though, as the legislature approved a bill in October 2017 to delay the implementation of RCV until 2021. Unless the Maine Constitution had been amended by then, Question 5 would be nullified.
Choosing not to back down, the Committee for RCV filed a People's Veto to block the new delay law five days later, but this time they had only 90 days to collect signatures. The group gladly accepted the challenge by turning in over 80,000 signatures in February 2018. Subsequently, the initiative became Question 1 and was scheduled for the June 2018 primary. Fulfilling voters' wishes, the group had also successfully sued to ensure RCV would be used in the primary, so as voters were using RCV in the primary, they were also voting on whether to keep RCV. Interestingly, Question 1 did better than Question 5, passing 53.9% to 46.1%. Voters could then use RCV in Maine's federal elections in November, where RCV proved decisive in who won Maine's 2nd Congressional district that year. After the election, the system continued to poll highly among voters as 61% of Mainers expressed support or expansion of RCV in Maine.
Igniting the Future
Although the constitutional question remains, as Maine voters still can't use RCV in state races in the general elections, there might be potential movement on the issue. In May of this year, the Maine Legislature's legal affairs committee approved a proposal to alter the constitution. Both chambers of the legislature would have to approve the bill by a two-thirds majority, and then it would be sent to the voters for final approval. There may be a future initiative to challenge the constitutional question, as Russell explains it is a possibility.
Despite a long-fought battle for RCV, Maine ignited the national RCV movement. Make sure you look out for our next blog post where Alaska captures national attention with its first of its kind of ranked-choice voting system!
About the author: Auston Collings is a Tucson native who works as a Regional Grassroots Organizer at Voter Choice Arizona. He is a rising sophomore at Yale University majoring in Environmental Studies.
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