LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Voters in Maine will soon participate in a historic democratic experiment. They'll be the first voters in the country to use ranked-choice voting in a statewide election. What is that, you ask? Well, it's a rarely-used system that allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference instead of picking just one. But as Steve Mistler of Maine Public Radio reports, getting ranked-choice voting up and running in time for next Tuesday's election has been an odyssey.
SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY: Instructions to voters - to vote, fill in the oval like this.
STEVE MISTLER, BYLINE: Shonna Milliken Humphrey is about to do something only voters in a handful of countries and U.S. cities have done before.
HUMPHREY: And so continue until you've ranked as many or as few candidates as you like.
MISTLER: She's ranking the candidates she supports. If one of them get a majority after the first count, they win. But if no one gets an outright majority, the rankings determine the overall winner. Humphrey seems to enjoy the experience, even if she has a little trouble deciding which of the seven Democratic gubernatorial candidates she wants to rank first.
HUMPHREY: OK. Let me see. I had it narrowed down to two that I would be very happy with if they were our governor.
MISTLER: Ever since voters approved the system two years ago, ranked-choice voting has been mired in never-ending political tussles and court battles and the threat of more looms. Republicans have sought to challenge the system from the outset and didn't approve money to teach voters how to cast their ballots. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who's a Democrat, compared implementing ranked-choice voting to hitting a very tiny target under a lot of pressure.
MATT DUNLAP: This is a little bit like Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star. You get one pass.
MISTLER: Dunlap's office has had to scrounge from existing funds to get ranked-choice voting ready for the public. It even had to hire a private courier service after Republican Governor Paul LePage refused to allow the Maine State Police to escort any ballots that needed to be counted at the capitol. Voter education has been largely left to town clerks and an animated video in which Dunlap walks viewers through the do's and don'ts.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
DUNLAP: If you put more than one candidate in a single ranking, your vote won't count since we won't be able to tell which candidate you really want.
MISTLER: Dunlap hopes the effort will be enough to avoid mass confusion on Election Day. Meanwhile, several of the Republican gubernatorial candidates, including Mary Mayhew, have suggested they might file legal challenges to the results of the primary.
MARY MAYHEW: Ranked-choice voting is a scam. It's going to undermine the integrity of our election process.
MISTLER: Republicans helped pass a law to repeal ranked-choice voting only to see the system's supporters put a veto of that repeal on Tuesday's ballot. So not only will Maine voters use a new system of voting for the first time, they'll also have to decide whether to keep it for future elections. Republicans like Mayhew see ranked-choice voting as an existential threat. And to understand why, you have to look at how the traditional most-votes-wins system benefitted LePage.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PAUL LEPAGE: Thank you. Thank you, Maine.
MISTLER: LePage was first elected in 2010 in a five-way contest by less than 2 percentage points after a Democrat and an independent candidate split the larger center-left electorate. While that split wasn't as pronounced when LePage won re-election four years later, activists put ranked-choice voting on the ballot in 2016. The campaign promised voters that ranking candidates would moderate the state's polarized politics and block the path for future LePages. But Gordon Weil, a Democratic political activist, says those arguments aren't realistic.
GORDON WEIL: It didn't work in terms of promoting amity among the candidates. They are taking shots at one another just as in any other election in hopes that you will put them first.
MISTLER: Because it's more complicated to count ranked-choice ballots, Mainers probably won't know the outcome of the election on Tuesday night. But they should know if they'll be voting the same way in November. For NPR News, I'm Steve Mistler in Augusta, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.