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.
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.