Ranked choice voting might be relatively new to the United States, but it’s been around for a while – both as an idea and in practice around the world. Now Maine may be on track to become the first state to use this method in its vote for president.

The result, proponents say, could be a new degree of empowerment for voters, and boost for the concept of majority rule.

Not everyone supports the idea, and in September a judge in Maine ruled against a petition that would have blocked the system. Additional judicial review is expected in October, but for now the ranked choice method is moving forward in Maine.

How does it work?

Elections in the U.S. typically use a plurality system, meaning whoever gets the most votes wins. However, it’s possible to get the most votes but still win fewer than 50% of the votes cast. Ranked choice voting tries to correct that, and ensure the winner has a true majority of votes. Instead of voting for a single candidate, voters in Maine will rank their candidates from No. 1 to No. 5. (The five candidates on the ballot are President Donald Trump; Democratic nominee Joe Biden; Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen; Green nominee Howie Hawkins; and Rocky de la Fuente, of the Alliance Party.) Voters don’t have to rank all the candidates. When the votes are counted, the candidate with more than 50% of the No. 1 votes wins.

If there is no one with an outright majority – more than 50% of the vote – the votes are recounted, with a twist. The candidate with the least votes from the previous round is eliminated, and the ballots with that candidate as No. 1 have their No. 2 slot counted instead. This pattern continues until there is a winner with an outright majority.

It can be as relevant in presidential races as in down-ballot decisions. In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won in Maine, despite not having more than 50% of the votes. (She won 47.8% of the total vote to Mr. Trump’s 44.8%.)

Where is it used?

Though Maine is the only state using ranked choice voting for all voters in federal elections, the voting method is used in various states and municipalities across the U.S. It was used in the 2020 Democratic primaries in Nevada, Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii, and Kansas.

Massachusetts voters will decide Nov. 3 whether to adopt it for state offices and congressional races, and Alaskans will choose whether to institute ranked choice general elections, including voting for president. It’s also used in one form or another in a growing number of municipalities across the U.S., according to data from FairVote, which advocates for voting reform. Maine is unique in that all voters will be using it to select the president.

Outside the U.S., variations of ranked choice have been used in a handful of countries, including Ireland, Australia, Sri Lanka, and Estonia.

Why use this method?

Advocates say ranked choice voting allows people to vote for non-major-party candidates without feeling like they’re throwing their vote away. For example, Mainers who voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or Green candidate Jill Stein in 2016 knew their choice probably would not win, so voting for them can feel like a waste. Under ranked choice voting, voters could have still put Mr. Johnson or Ms. Stein as their No. 1 choice, but then their vote would have transferred once those candidates were knocked out.

Since the Maine law was enacted in 2016, it has faced challenges in the courts. The Maine Supreme Court ruled against a Republican-led petition drive to suspend the law. Detractors of ranked choice voting sometimes cite the confusion it can cause: It’s new, and requires voters to understand how to rank candidates. Additionally, opponents say the principle of “one person, one vote” is best served by the traditional system where whoever comes out with the most votes wins – without multiple rounds of counting in different ways.

Ranked choice voting will also require more time and money to tabulate the results if someone doesn’t win a majority on the first round. It could also save money by avoiding the need for runoffs in states that require a majority to elect.

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