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James Morales (copy)

Benton County Clerk James Morales is tasked with purchasing equipment and mounting a public education campaign to implement ranked choice voting for future county elections. The hope is to use the system in the 2020 election.

Those of us in Benton County who have been anxiously awaiting our first opportunity to use ranked choice voting can only jealously cast our eyes to Maine: This month, voters in the state with the other Portland became the first to conduct a federal general election using the alternative voting method.

That election turned out to be a doozy, the sort of race that seems tailor-made for ranked choice voting: The winner in Maine's 2nd Congressional District, Jared Golden, became the first person elected to Congress with fewer first-place votes than his opponent, Republican Bruce Poliquin. Maine election officials didn't call the race until the Thursday after Election Day (and announced the results on a Facebook Live feed, which is charming).

At this point, though, you need a word about how ranked choice voting works:

In ranked choice voting — also known as an instant runoff election — voters are asked to rank the candidates for a particular office in order of preference. If one person receives more than half the votes on the first ballot, that candidate wins.

If not, the candidate receiving the fewest votes is eliminated, and the second-place choices of the losing candidate’s supporters are counted. The process is repeated until one contender emerges with more than 50 percent of the vote. (This is the same system by which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences now chooses the best picture winner.) 

So here's how it worked in Maine: 

In the four-way contest for the House seat, Poliquin got 46.3 percent of the first-place votes, slightly ahead of Golden's 45.6 percent. But no one claimed a majority, so the ranked choice voting process kicked into gear. In the second round, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes was eliminated, and the second-place votes for that candidate were parceled out among the remaining three. When all the votes had been tabulated, Golden finally claimed a narrow victory, with 50.53 percent of the vote to Poliquin's 49.47 percent.

The battle for that House seat isn't over: Poliquin has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of ranked choice voting. A hearing is scheduled for next month.

Maine uses ranked choice voting for federal elections, but is hesitating to apply it to state races for fear that it runs afoul of the state constitution. Still, the system seems to have support there, seeing how voters have twice approved it in statewide referendums. 

Benton County voters approved putting a toe or two in the electoral waters when they passed Measure 2-100 in November 2016. The measure specified that the system would not apply to party primaries and would be used only for elective county offices — which basically boils down to just the sheriff and the county commissioners. (And, of course, the system only comes into play when there are three or more candidates for a particular office.)

Supporters of the measure had initially hoped it would be ready to go in time for this year’s general election, but the funding for implementation was not approved in time. 

That's a shame: This year's five-way race for Benton County commissioner would have been a great way to break in the system. Now, we'll have to wait for the 2020 election cycle and hope that the commission job continues to attract a number of candidates. (The sheriff's position rarely seems to attract more than one or two candidates.)

Supporters of ranked choice voting say that the system tends to force candidates to focus on the issues and avoid negative campaigning because they know they may need votes from members of other parties beside their own. It is a way, they say, to encourage candidates to seek common ground rather than division.

And maybe that's how it will play out in Benton County. Let's hope we finally get a chance to find two years from now. (mm)

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