On Tuesday, for the first time Maine, voters had a chance to use ranked-choice voting to pick their nominees for governor and for Democrats in the 2nd Congressional District.
Despite all the hand wringing, ranked-choice voting itself is pretty straightforward. You rank the candidates in the order that you like them.
What’s different is the way the ballots are counted.
In Maine, our elections are well run by local clerks, and we generally know the outcome by Wednesday morning. While the results aren’t official, the vote tallies usually point to a winner.
This year, it’s a little different.
With four candidates seeking the Republican nomination for governor and seven seeking the Democratic nomination, plus three candidates in the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District, math suggests that it’s going to be a few days before we know the winners.
And – let’s just be clear – that’s not a big deal.
For a winner to be picked by now, he or she would have to capture 50 percent plus one of the first-place ballots cast. That’s a tall order in a big field of candidates.
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said last week that his office won’t start counting the ranked-choice ballots until Friday. The office will release unofficial results from the first round of voting and from the ranked-choice rounds.
The delay in knowing the results is different, for sure. For insiders and folks who closely follow politics, the idea of not knowing the winner for several days has caused some consternation. They’re talking about “uncertainty.”
If you’re reading this column, which mostly talks about politics and government every week, you are probably really anxious to know who has won. (Also, you’re in a small minority of voters who follow politics closely.)
Most voters in Maine didn’t participate in this election. And of those who did, they started paying attention within the last two weeks – maybe. And they’ll stop paying attention until sometime after September.
For those of us who work in politics (I worked for the Lucas St. Clair campaign in the 2nd District), we tend to live and breathe every detail of a race. Most people just don’t.
And, while it’ll be a little different for them, waiting a few days to know the outcome of the primary won’t substantially impact their lives – no matter who wins and who loses.
In April, I worked on a ballot initiative in Anchorage. For the first time, the municipal election was entirely conducted by mail. Voters received their ballots in the mail and then had until the end of Election Day to either mail them back or drop them in a secure voting box, which were placed around the city. You couldn’t even be certain how many people had actually voted until a few days after Election Day.
With the last ballots not mailed until the end of the Election Day, it was nearly two weeks before the final results were certain.
Except for a few of us waiting desperately for the daily ballot updates, life pretty much went on for everyone else.
No disruptions. No rioting in the streets. No throngs waiting longingly outside of city hall for a glimpse of the future.
It was a different kind of election experience, but the increased ease of participation for voters made it worthwhile, and voter participation surged, breaking records.
The same is true for ranked-choice voting. We might have to wait a little longer for the results, but it’s worth it if it makes our elections better, increases interest or better engages voters in the process.
Come Friday, or maybe Monday or Tuesday, the secretary of state will finish counting the ranked-choice ballots. Maine will have its nominees. And we’ll move from the primary election into the general election.
And most voters will tune out again until sometime after Labor Day, when their interest in the election will peak.
When Portland first used ranked-choice voting for mayor in 2011, I went to city hall to watch the process. Essentially, it was clerks feeding ballots into a machine. The process was smooth and interesting to watch. Not a whole lot different than watching a small town hand count ballots on election night.
Somehow, our expectations in elections have become about speed of results. But that only really matters to the insiders. The higher priority should be about the quality of the outcome and making sure every vote is counted and every voice is heard.
Media folks will get a few more days of speculation about the outcome, where they’ll parse exit polls and tea leaves. For most everyone else, life will go on.
We’ll know who wins soon enough. The wait ain’t going to kill anybody.