Maine, ranked choice voting, and the National Popular Vote Compact

Maine recently enacted ranked choice voting (“RCV”) for most of its elections. Very briefly, it allows voters to rank the preference of candidates instead of just picking one.

The original Maine bill excluded presidential elections from RCV. But the legislature recently approved expanding that to presidential elections (only later to be hung up and carried over to a later legislative session).

The new 21-A Maine Rev. Stat. Ann. § 805, sub-§2, if approved in the future, would be amended to read: “The presidential electors at large shall cast their ballots for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates who received the largest number of votes in the State according to the ranked-choice method of counting votes described in section 723-A. The presidential electors of each congressional district shall cast their ballots for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates who received the largest number of votes in each respective congressional district according to the ranked-choice method of counting votes described in section 723-A.”

Here’s how RCV looks in 723-A:

Except as provided in subsections 3 and 4, the following procedures are used to determine the winner in an election determined by ranked-choice voting. Tabulation must proceed in rounds. In each round, the number of votes for each continuing candidate must be counted. Each continuing ballot counts as one vote for its highest-ranked continuing candidate for that round. Exhausted ballots are not counted for any continuing candidate. The round then ends with one of the following 2 potential outcomes.

A. If there are 2 or fewer continuing candidates, the candidate with the most votes is declared the winner of the election.

B. If there are more than 2 continuing candidates, the last-place candidate is defeated and a new round begins.

Whew. What that means is, candidates are ranked. The top-ranked candidates on each ballot are tallied. The candidate with the fewest top-ranked votes is eliminated. The ballots are retallied, this time as if that eliminate candidate weren’t there, and voters who’d cast their first-place votes for that eliminated candidate now have their second choice counted as the first choice. This proceeds in rounds until there are 2 candidates, and the candidate with the higher vote is the winner.

All well and good for the State of Maine, which may “appoint” presidential electors in the “manner” that the legislature may “direct,” and RCV certainly falls within that.

But how might this interact with a national tally of the popular vote for presidential elections—and, specifically, the National Popular Vote Compact (“NPV”)?

While Maine is not (yet?) a member to the NPV, many states are [###

Here’s the relevant text of typical common language from the NPV:

Prior to the time set by law for the meeting and voting by the presidential electors, the chief election official of each member state shall determine the number of votes for each presidential slate in each state of the United States and in the District of Columbia in which votes have been cast in a statewide popular election and shall add such votes together to produce a ‘national popular vote total’ for each presidential slate.

The chief election official of each member state shall treat as conclusive an official statement containing the number of popular votes in a state for each presidential slate made by the day established by federal law for making a state’s final determination conclusive as to the counting of electoral votes by Congress.

(One important caveat from reading this text: in the event a state chooses not to hold a popular election for president—say, as Colorado did in 1876, when the legislature simply chose presidential electors—those states would not be included in a national popular vote total.)

So, what happens in Maine if RCV takes place? How would Maine’s vote be totaled in the national popular vote?

If there are, say, five candidates on the ballot, the popular vote total couldn’t really be the votes for those five candidates. RCV suggests paring them down until you get to two, then you name the winner. And voters cast votes understanding that their choices will be eliminated if they fail to advance in the next round. An advantage of RCV for independent or minor party candidates is that voters can vote for them without “wasting” a vote.

So RCV would then narrow down the votes of Mainers to two candidates. Those two candidates would then appear to be the only “votes” for a “presidential slate” in the State of Maine—that is, the tally after the final round of RCV. It would empower Maine voters over national voters—after all, the people of Maine would typically have all of their votes allocated to a Republican candidate or a Democratic candidate, as opposed to voters in other states that may scatter some number of voters among independent or minor party candidates.

But it could produce an alternative wrinkle. In 1992, Ross Perot received slightly more votes than George H.W. Bush to place second in the statewide vote. It’s not clear how RCV would have played out. But suppose that in the penultimate round of RCV Mr. Bush was eliminated, and the final round of RCV voting included just Bill Clinton and Mr. Perot. In the national popular vote total, the Republican candidate would receive zero votes from Maine—a small state, sure, but a significant cost to a major party candidate.

In short, I think inserting RCV in Maine is fine for Maine if it’s what Maine wants to do. But it’s precisely a reason why we cannot think of a “national popular vote” total by adding up the aggregate votes cast in 51 jurisdiction. This “invisible federalism” typicall operates in a way we don’t notice—we might simply look at each state’s votes and assume we can add them together for a single popular vote total. But the decisions of individual states, like a potential RCV in Maine, could have unforeseen consequences that undermine how we think about a national popular vote total. It’s a reason why Electoral College reform to make the presidential election truly national must occur at the federal level and not at the state level.