The 2018 Ranked Choice Voting Election in Maine’s Congressional District No. 2

Maine’s recent congressional election – the first-ever federal poll in the U.S. to be held under Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) – took place against a backdrop of continuing opposition by the Republican Party to the recently introduced voting system. State GOP leaders not only called on their voters to rank just the party’s candidates, but sought as well a court ruling to prevent RCV from determining the outcome of the U.S. House of Representatives election in Congressional District No. 2, and subsequently a recount of all ballots in the election (later called off while it was underway).

Nonetheless, a significant minority of Republican voters in the district ignored party exhortations and indicated valid rankings for at least two candidates, while substantial minorities of non-GOP voters only gave a first preference to Democratic or independent candidates. At the same time, the number of voters who engaged in bullet voting – indicating a preference for just one candidate – constituted a minority of the voting electorate in CD-2. This is notable when one considers that in both the 2016 and 2018 RCV referendums held in Maine, a majority of voters in CD-2 rejected the switch from plurality voting.

Moreover, a federal judge first allowed the RCV count to take place, and subsequently issued a ruling upholding the constitutionality of the election in the congressional district, where incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin obtained the largest number of first preference votes, but fell short of an absolute majority; he then lost the second and final round of counting to Democratic challenger Jared Golden, who prevailed with 142,440 votes (50.6%) to Poliquin’s 138,931 (49.4%) following the elimination of independent candidates Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar, whose second preferences were transferred to the remaining two candidates. The First Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently denied Congressman Poliquin’s motion for an injunction to prevent Golden from being declared the winner, and Poliquin – who wanted the election outcome determined solely by the first preference count, or by a re-run under plurality voting – dropped the lawsuit challenging RCV shortly thereafter.

The following table, based on a tally of 296,077 cast vote records in CD-2, published by Maine’s Secretary of State on his official website, shows the distribution of first preference votes for each candidate with at least a valid second preference for another candidate (“Preference”), or no second and successive preferences for a different candidate (“Bullet”); the “Other” category groups ballots with valid first preferences, but no valid second or successive preferences due to either overvoting on the second preference ranking – indicating a second preference for more than one candidate – or undervoting i.e. leaving blank more than one consecutive ranking beyond first preference while indicating preferences for other candidates, or a combination of both. State of Maine 2018 Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) Election Data has frequency counts for all 1,564 tallied preference combinations in the CD-2 election.

Candidate Bullet % Preference % Other % Total
Bond (I) 4,333 26.2 12,106 73.1 113 0.7 16,552
Golden (D) 51,423 39.0 79,551 60.3 1,039 0.8 132,013
Hoar (I) 2,120 30.8 4,713 68.6 42 0.6 6,875
Poliquin (R) 89,228 66.5 43,955 32.8 1,001 0.7 134,184
Total 147,104 50.8 140,325 48.5 2,195 0.7 289,624

There were 435 overvotes and 6,018 undervotes in the first preference count; the latter figure – which included 5,711 ballots undervoted on all available rankings – is noticeably lower than the reported number of blank ballots in the plurality-based 2014 and 2016 U.S. House elections in CD-2, and it is also lower than the number of blank ballots in the district for this year’s gubernatorial election in Maine, which was also carried out by plurality voting. At the very least, these numbers indicate the introduction of RCV did not bring about an increase in the number of blank or invalid ballots. In addition, the very low number of overvotes strongly suggests there was little voter confusion about the new electoral system.

Of the 147,104 voters in CD-2 who indicated valid preferences for just one candidate, 137,971 indicated only a first preference, including 315 cases with a second preference but no first preference, while an additional 9,133 voters indicated a valid first preference (or a valid second preference without a first preference), as well as additional preferences, but only for a specific candidate; a large majority of these – 7,706 voters – gave all five preference rankings to their chosen candidate. Under Maine’s RCV counting rules, these votes had the same effect as having indicated only a first preference for the selected candidate. However, while ballots with valid preferences for just a single candidate constitute a narrow majority of the valid first preference votes, they represent a minority of 49.7% of all votes cast in the district. By contrast, in both the 2016 and 2018 RCV referendums, CD-2 reported a majority of votes against RCV both among the valid and overall vote totals. Moreover, even among voters casting valid first preferences, those who indicated a first preference only were a minority of 47.6%.

Bullet voting for the two major-party candidates had no impact in the CD-2 election outcome, since their first preferences were tallied in the second count as preferences for continuing candidates. However, the 6,453 ballots with valid rankings for either Bond only or Hoar only made up the bulk of the 8,253 non-transferable votes in the second count (most of the remaining 1,800 votes in that group had valid rankings for both Bond and Hoar, but not for the other two candidates). It has been suggested that these voters were confused as to which candidates would make it to the second count, but a far more likely explanation is that they simply wished to support the independent candidates only and didn’t care for either of the two major-party candidates. In fact, their behavior is functionally the same as that of voters in traditional runoff systems casting a blank or invalid ballot in the runoff election, after the candidates they originally supported were eliminated in the first round of voting. Moreover, Bond and Hoar first preference voters had the lowest proportion of bullet voting, at just under two out of seven ballots cast for them.

The overall distribution of bullet votes and preference votes in the CD-2 election closely resembles the 2016 and 2018 RCV referendum outcomes, and it would seem this is not entirely a coincidence: in towns with more than ten voters, there were moderately strong correlations between bullet voting in 2018 and opposition to RCV in 2016 (0.62), as well as between preference votes in 2018 and support for the new electoral system two years earlier (0.64); when the correlations were calculated on the basis of valid votes only, both stood at 0.63.

In conclusion, neither all GOP voters in CD-2 ranked Congressman Poliquin only (nearly a third cast a preference vote) nor did all Golden voters (or those backing independent candidates Bond and Hoar) rank other candidates – this was the case with almost three out of eight non-Poliquin voters. There was little evidence of voter confusion, and casting a preference vote or a bullet vote may have been indicative of ongoing support for RCV or opposition to it, respectively; if so, the election outcome did not point to growing opposition to the newly adopted electoral system. Just as important, these findings should leave no doubt that RCV is not a clear-cut partisan issue.

7 thoughts on “The 2018 Ranked Choice Voting Election in Maine’s Congressional District No. 2

  1. And outgoing Governor LePage scrawled “Stolen Election” on the official certification of the election: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/maine-congressional-race-governor-paul-lepage-signs-off-on-jared-golden-winner/

    Is this GOP opposition to ranked-choice voting a new thing based on shoprt-term political tactics, like Queensland Labor’s view at any given time on optional preferences? Or is it like the GOP’s opposition to manual vote counts, a long-running difference of philosophical principle which first reached public attention after Florida in November 200 but was actually first inserted into the Republican platform as long ago as 1860 by Abraham Lincoln himself?

    • It is, as far as I can tell, purely political. I have seen, from more than a few people, the sense that if voters can get a “second vote,” than Republicans would be hard pressed to win. While it seemed to be coming mostly from internet comments and twitter posts, a few people even outrightly said that it is unfair that the liberal majority can now win every election.

      Poliquin’s lawsuit reads like a mad tirade against democracy: he claims that because there is an instant runoff, the people of Maine are no longer choosing their representative, he claims that it strips a voter’s right to “advance a weaker candidate,” and he claims the old standby of people getting three votes while he only got to vote for himself. My favorite part of the whole rant is that his solution is to hand himself the whole election.

    • Given the rarity of voting on IRV outside large cities, it’s obviously kinda hard to find a clear Republican position over time, but it’s interesting that the Alaskan Republican Party in 2002 didn’t share Bruce Poliquin and Paul LePage’s belief that IRV is unconstitutional and undemocratic.

      • I’m sure the Alaskan GOP support had nothing to do with losing five or six straight gubernatorial races, most of which were three way races.

  2. GOP opposition to RCV in Maine hasn’t abated in the two years since the 2018 election: on the contrary, the party was much exercised earlier this year in a failed effort to force a people’s veto referendum on a recently approved law expanding RCV to U.S. presidential elections in the state. Meanwhile, in this year’s primary for the party’s U.S. House nomination in CD-2 no candidate won an absolute majority of first preferences, which triggered an RCV count – the first ever for a Republican primary in the state.

    Maine’s Secretary of State has now published cast vote records files of the aforementioned primary on its official website, and the data shows that a large majority of party voters casting a valid first preference in the primary – 27,611 of 42,347, or 65.2% – actually ranked at least another candidate. Meanwhile, 14,586 voters in the primary, or 34.4% cast a bullet vote, indicating a preference for only one candidate. Among the latter, 11,954 cast a first preference only, while 2,526 gave all three preferences to the same candidate. Nevertheless, clear majorities of the first preference voters of each of the three candidates in the race marked preferences for at least two candidates, with figures ranging from 61.3% for primary winner Dale Crafts to 70.3% for second-placed Adrienne Bennett.

    District-wide results of the RCV count, made available prior to the publication of cast vote records data, already hinted to the possibility a majority of valid votes cast in the primary had at least two preferences. After the first count, third-place hopeful Eric Brakey was eliminated, and 6,290 of his 9,542 first preference votes, or 65.9% were transferred to the remaining two candidates.

    By comparison, 73.3% of voters who indicated a valid first preference in the 2018 U.S. House Democratic primary in CD-2 ranked at least another candidate. While it’s evident that most Republican voters ignored pleas from state party leaders to rank only one candidate as a protest against RCV, it’s not clear that they are embracing it, or simply taking advantage of the system while remaining opposed to it.

  3. In the not completely impossible case that Texas votes for Biden, we can expect Republicans to become advocates of direct election of the president in about 11 seconds flat.

    I recently read Presidential elections and majority rule Foley (2020).

    when americans think about the authors of the Electoral College, they are apt to picture the delegates to the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787, including such famous Founding Fathers as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Ben Franklin. But in actuality they should be thinking about the members of the Eighth Congress, which met in the autumn of 1803, and included among its leading thinkers Senator John Taylor of Virginia and Representative George Campbell of Tennessee. Although these figures are entirely eclipsed in historical prominence by the statesmen who crafted the original Constitution 16 years earlier, they were no lightweights and merit our consideration. Taylor, for example, was a leading constitutional scholar of his day and author of An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States, among his many major books.1

    Foley’s main argument is that the XII Amendment assumed an absolute majority winner in each state. The authors of the amendment assumed the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties would monopolise elections and there would always be only two candidates. Of course, they did not know the Federalist party would disappear, largely as result of the electoral college shenanigans in 1800.

    In 1803 all states provided for popular or legislative runoffs if candidates for presidential elector did not win more than half the votes. Mosts states abolished runoffs after 1928 when Andrew Jackson persuaded himself, probably wrongly, that runoffs were part of the reason he was denied the presidency in 1824. Foley defines the Jeffersonian winner as there candidate who reeves an absolute majority of the popular vote in states that collectively have an absolute majority in the electoral college. Trump and Bush were clearly not the jeffersonian winners at their first elections. Neither was Clinton.

    His proposal is that states provide for an instant or delayed runoff if no presidential candidate wins more than half the popular vote.

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