Maine has enjoyed a national reputation for bipartisanship and civility in its public life in the 75 years since World War II, sending, for example, Margaret Chase Smith (R), Edmund Muskie (D), George Mitchell (D), William Cohen (R), Olympia Snowe (R), Susan Collins (R) and Angus King (I) to the U.S. Senate over the years. Its habit of electing governors in September, until they changed in 1957 to November elections, gave rise to the catch-phrase, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”
But sure enough, for the past eight years Maine has been governed by a toxic former businessman who bears a strong political resemblance to Donald Trump. How did Gov. Paul LePage get elected? He was the beneficiary of Maine voters’ famous independent streak.
LePage won the GOP nomination in the Tea Party year of 2010, with 38 of the primary vote. Five months later he won the general election with 38 percent of all votes cast, defeating independent candidate Eliot Cutler by barely 7,500 votes. Cutler had been hoping to replace Gov. Angus King, who had served two terms as an independent. Democratic Party candidate Libby Mitchell trailed with 19 percent of the vote, while Republican Shawn Moody and unaffiliated Kevin Scott received 5 percent and 1 percent, respectively.
In 2014, LePage was re-elected, with 48 percent of the vote, defeating Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud, with 43 percent. This time Cutler claimed 8 percent of the vote. Since the beginning of his incumbency there has been near-constant turmoil. At one point the governor seemed on the verge of impeachment.
Instead, voters organized a referendum to establish ranked-choice voting in state-wide elections, and passed it twice over determined opposition, affirming in a referendum earlier this month that the method will be used in future state primaries and all elections for federal offices. The Maine constitution must be amended if ranked-choice is to replace plurality voting in general elections in Maine.
Voters are accustomed to casting their ballots for a single candidate. The ranked-choice procedure asks voters to rank multiple candidates in the order they prefer them. If no candidate is ranked first by more than 50 percent of the voters, the candidate least-often ranked first is dropped and his or her next-best votes are reallocated to the others. The processes continues until a majority candidate emerges.
The process has been used in national elections in Australia for more than a century; the Academy of Motion Pictures employs it to insure against vote-splitting that might permit an unpopular choice for Best Motion Picture to slip through. So do several municipalities, including Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco.
Term limits mean LePage can’t run again. So earlier this month, auto-repair entrepreneur Shawn Moody, who first ran for governor in 2010, defeated three others in the Republican primary. He received 54 percent of the vote, meaning that ranked choice was not an issue. All four candidates pledged to carry on LePage’s legacy of tax cuts and welfare stringency. Meanwhile, two-term Atty. Gen. Janet Mills required four run-off rounds to defeat clean energy entrepreneur Adam Cote in the Democratic primary, 54 percent to 46 percent. Five other candidates were dropped from the totals.
We’ll have to wait until November to see what happens in Maine. The Bangor Daily News noted last week that Maine voters appear slightly more enthusiastic about Trump than you might expect, and cautioned that November might not turn out to be a “wave” election. Republican Bruce Poliquin is running for a third term in Maine’s enormous interior congressional district, which in 2016 delivered its one electoral vote to Trump.
And with respect to the possibility of eventually adopting ranked-choice voting in presidential elections, Harvard economists Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen wrote in The New York Times earlier this month, the “interstate compacts” required to bundle votes in the Electoral College get far ahead of the story. For now, they say, the focus on ranked-choice voting is in Maine
David Warsh, a long time economics and political columnist, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, based in Somerville, Mass.