Maine Supreme Court justices unanimously stated what was obvious: ranked-choice voting, based on multiple vote counts until one candidate has a majority, did not square with the Maine Constitution’s requirement that an election winner should have a plurality of the votes.
The moment the votes are counted, the candidate with the most votes – a plurality of votes – is the winner. Counting past that point violates the Constitution.
So what does Maine do now? Voters could be faced with choices that simply renew the ranked-choice voting debate.
Now is the moment to take a step back and see the real underlying choice.
What ranked-choice advocates opposed was an election in which the winner could have more votes than any other candidate gets, but far from a majority. In other words, a majority of voters wanted somebody else. Ranked choice could produce a majority winner, sort of, by counting second- and third-choice votes.
With a bit of perspective, we can see that the central issue was preference for a majority winner of some sort rather than a plurality winner.
For the record, 39 states, including Maine, now use the plurality and 11 use a majority system – the run-off election. None uses ranked-choice voting.
Why not answer the majority-plurality question first? Do we want to change the Maine Constitution to require a majority vote to win an election? That question could take the form of a constitutional amendment making the manner of achieving a majority a separate question.
Voters could decide, provided they had first chosen majority over plurality. Voters could choose between run-off elections and ranked-choice voting.
Ranked-choice voting takes place at a single election, but it is costly according to calculations of the Maine Secretary of State. It does not allow for reconsideration of one’s voting preferences after the first round. Its advantage is that it is all over in one shot.
Run-offs allow for a real campaign between the two surviving candidates. It costs less than ranked-choice voting, but depends on second-round participation holding up, which history shows it does.
In short, a new vote would focus on the basic question – plurality or majority – and leave to a separate vote the choice of method to be used if majority prevails.
A side benefit of these referendum questions could be to take the issue out of partisan politics and make them a simple and clear constitutional choice.