As Mainers head to the polls Tuesday — one of five states holding primary contests — they won’t just be voting, they’ll be participating in a first-of-its-kind experiment in state politics.
Instead of just marking a single vote when there are more than two candidates in a given race, voters will be asked to rank each name on the ballot, in order of preference.
It is called “ranked choice voting,” and while some local communities use the system (including here in Cambridge), it has never been piloted statewide and could signal a change in how Americans vote going forward.
The idea behind ranked choice gained traction after nine of the past 11 contests for governor were won with less than a majority of votes, or 50 percent, including the last two in which Governor Paul LePage was elected. Maine voters approved the change in 2016, as a way of encouraging better consensus at the ballot box.
Under the new system, if the person with the most “first” votes doesn’t receive more than 50 percent, then vote counters look at how the voter ranked the rest of the field. The candidate who has the least “first” votes gets dropped and that candidate’s votes are reallocated to the second choice listed. This continues until one person has a majority of total votes.
The most unexpected part of the system? It’s feasible for a candidate who wouldn’t have won under a typical voting system to take the top prize.
Practically speaking, the only races where Mainers will be able to rank candidates are the Democratic and Republican primaries for governor, the Democratic primary for US Representative in the northern Second Congressional District, and a local state legislative race where there are multiple candidates running.
Or as a Portland City Councilor put it:
#RCV is easy. I?m going to Hannaford to get you some strawberry ice cream. You tell me to get raspberry if they don?t have strawberry, and cherry if they don?t have raspberry. We rank our choices all the time. We can do this. #MEpolitics— Adrian Dowling (@LesleyKnopf) June 12, 2018
And in the weirdest twist, there will also be a provision on Tuesday’s ballot to repeal the entire ranked-choice system altogether.
In the closing weeks of the primary campaign, there’s been roughly as much debate on the merits of the process as there has been for the open seat for governor. Even actress Jennifer Lawrence has weighed in on the debate, endorsing the system in a new video because she says it would “help make government work better.”
The Republican Party of Maine, meanwhile, has come out against the concept in several press releases.
So how will the first experiment with the ranked-choice system go? You’ll have to wait until Wednesday to find out.James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp