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Maine Bills Seek to Ensure Majority Vote for Political Contest Winners
04/22/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

When Gov. Paul LePage won his bid for office two years ago with 38 percent of the vote, he became the fourth consecutive governor to be elected without a mandate. That's troubling to many lawmakers who would like to replace Maine's current plurality system with a new model that ensures successful candidates for statewide political office win a majority of the vote. As A.J. Higgins reports, several such bills are being considered by a legislative policy committee, and all require significant changes to current election laws.

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Maine Bills Seek to Ensure Majority Vote for Polit Listen

Although several of the bills take different approaches, they all attempt to reverse the recent trend in which Maine's gubernatorial races are decided by less than 50 percent of the vote. State Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent from Friendship, says those results run contrary to the state's democratic principles.

"Our system of democracy depends upon the concept of majority rule, to be effective our election outcomes must produce a candidate who has received a clear mandate to govern," Evangelos said. "Clearly, our two last gubernatorial elections failed to produce a winner anywhere near the threshold of majority support."

Evangelos was among a group of four lawmakers submitting bills that would change the current plurality standard to one that ensures that the winner achieves a majority of the vote. The bills pit a ranked-choice voting system - similar to the process Portland uses to elect its mayor - against a run-off system that would call for a special vote soon after the general election between the two top finishers.

Some of the plans would also include races for the U.S. Senate. U.S. House and the Maine Legislature, but all of them include the governor. That office is still a sore point for majority Democrats, who saw LePage emerge with a Republican win in a five-way race in 2010.

State Sen. John Patrick is a member of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that is reviewing the bills. "If you get 55 or 60 percent of the vote as a governor, there is a direction change that people want to have," Patrick says. "If you're at 39 percent, whether you're a D or an R, what does that say?"

Run-off elections for governor would take the state in a very different direction than current law prescribes. Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn says the bill would require a constitutional amendment that would have to be supported by two-thirds of the Maine Legislature and approved by the voters in a statewide referendum.

In addition, she says proposals that envision a quick turnaround time for the runoff vote after the general election would have to be counted by hand. Flynn said the process would prove expensive for Maine's cities and towns - and the state.

"The cost of that for a second election with hand-count ballots would be about $125,000," Flynn said. "And essentially, the run-off would be considered a special election, so we would not be able to budget for that - you don't know if one would need to occur, so basically, we would be asking the Legislature for an appropriation to cover those costs."

While slightly more complicated, a bill sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, of Portland, seemed to attract a little more support during the public hearings. The system requires voters to rank multiple candidates for the same office according to their preference. As results are tabulated the voters' choices are redistributed accordingly until a candidate emerges with a majority of the collective vote.

Russell says the system has worked well in Portland, and would not require a constitutional amendment to address current language stating that the governor can be elected with a plurality of votes.

"The ranked system allows us to be able to create a system that happens to get us there, but it does not require a majority vote - it gets us there," Russell said. "And that's a big distinction because a majority happens to be a plurality, but a plurality does not happen to be a majority."

Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee Co-Chair Sen. John Tuttle, a Sanford Democrat, says he hopes the committee will be able to craft a bill that reflects the best intent of all four proposals.


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