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Jay Evensen: Why Utahns should care who is winning in Maine's elections

Voters wait in line in the gymnasium at Brunswick Junior High School to receive their ballots for the mid-term election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Brunswick, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Voters wait in line in the gymnasium at Brunswick Junior High School to receive their ballots for the mid-term election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Brunswick, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Robert F. Bukaty, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — If you think some of the close races in Utah were nail-biters this year, you haven’t looked at Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. People there are biting down their cuticles.

Some of them are trying to bite the people in charge of the way the vote was conducted.

Maine is the incubator for ranked-choice voting. It is, as of this year, the first state to apply this method to congressional races. But now, one of the candidates for the 2nd District there has sued to pull the plug on the whole idea.

What happens to this case in coming weeks could either allow it to spread elsewhere, including Utah, or squash it like a pesky insect.

I wrote about this a month ago because the Utah Legislature recently passed a bill setting up an eight-year pilot project for ranked-choice voting in municipal elections that feature more than two candidates. Cities would have to opt in for next year’s municipal races. None has done so yet, although supporters tell me a few are close to saying yes.

The idea is simple. Voters would be able to mark their ballots in order of preference. If, for example, four candidates were in the race, voters could assign a first, second, third and fourth choice.

If no candidate received more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, the last-place finisher would be eliminated and all his or her second-through-third votes would be redistributed among the remaining three. The process would continue until someone has more than 50 percent.

It’s supposed to do away with the notion of someone winning a race with less than a majority mandate. But what it’s really doing in Maine is highlighting the fact that democracy is often more complicated than one of those math exams you keep having recurring nightmares about.

Four candidates were on the ballot to represent Maine’s 2nd District. The incumbent, Republican Bruce Poliquin, received about 2,000 more first-place votes than his Democratic challenger, but only 46 percent of all the votes cast.

In any other state, he would be the winner. In Maine, once the other choices of those who voted for the other three candidates are tabulated, shipped, scanned and certified (which might have happened by the time you read this), the Democrat may be the winner.

That would mean voters had unwittingly elected someone who lost in a head-to-head race with the second-place finisher.

In his lawsuit seeking to get Maine’s secretary of state to just count things the usual way, Poliquin (who was joined in the suit by three Republican voters) said the "foundation of our 'democratic process' is the right of all qualified voters to cast their votes effectively," the Associated Press reported. He said ranked-choice voting “denies Plaintiffs the opportunity to cast their votes effectively."

Since I wrote about this in October, people have contacted me with other examples of problems associated with ranked-choice voting. In one case in Minnesota nine years ago, the promised majority winner never materialized. Candidates for a park board seat went through all the elimination rounds and the winner still had only 46 percent. That’s because a lot of voters either declined to rank their choices, or their choices all had been exhausted by the time the final round was tallied.

A few things might happen here. One is that Poliquin wins the race after the ranked choices are tabulated, in which case he could drop the lawsuit. Another is that he loses and his challenge eventually finds its way to the Supreme Court.

So, what should Utah’s cities do?

As I said last month, ranked-choice-voting has its advantages. It would foster more civil campaign strategies as candidates try not to offend voters who might at least list them as a second choice. Also, it would keep like-minded candidates from splitting the vote and inadvertently handing the race to someone else.

What it would not do, however, is guarantee a peaceful, contented outcome in all races. But a nation with the Electoral College, hanging chads and … well … Florida, should be used to that by now.