When going to the polls this fall—or voting from home—Maine voters will receive a form that looks more like a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet than a typical ballot with a list of names and instructions to check just one box. After a nearly four-year legal battle, Maine will be the first state to use ranked-choice voting in a presidential election. Election-reform advocates will be watching to see whether a voting method that has been employed by a handful of cities and, in the case of primaries, some state parties, can improve our electoral process.
Voters will see a grid that lists the names of all the candidates in one column, next to a blank column in which they will rank those candidates numerically. The exact form of ranked-choice ballots varies from place to place, but the concept is based on the idea that voters shouldn’t have only one vote. Instead, each voter has as many votes as there are candidates in the race. Rather than choose one candidate, voters rank the candidates in order of preference.
If one candidate does not win a majority of first-choice votes, the election proceeds to an “instant runoff,” a misleading term since the runoff process can take days or sometimes longer than a week. What it means is that voters don’t return to the polls for an actual vote. Instead, all but the top two candidates are eliminated from the race and the second-choice votes of people who voted for the eliminated candidates are then redistributed. For example, if a given voter’s first choice was Candidate A (who finishes third in the first round of voting) and their second choice was Candidate B (who finished first), the voter’s second choice vote is assigned to Candidate B as part of their total tally. The process continues until one candidate amasses a majority of votes.
Advocates for ranked choice contend that this method introduces beneficial incentives into the structure of campaigns. “Ranked-choice voting in our state gets the candidate with the broadest and deepest support elected,” says Stan Lockhart, former chairman of the Utah Republican party. The format, Lockhart and others contend, pushes candidates toward appealing to a wider swath of voters.