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Portland Press Herald

Bill would change Maine's voting system to instant runoff

By Mark Peters

February 1, 2005

Chris Hourcle voted for Ralph Nader for president in 2000, but didn't even look at his platform last fall. The Bar Harbor resident instead picked a candidate who had a chance to win - not one he believed in. "I decided I couldn't risk it," Hourcle said.

Two Portland lawmakers are pushing for a new law to take that risk out of voting. State House Majority Leader Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, and Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland, want the state to use a so-called instant runoff system.

Under it, a candidate's electability would no longer be a factor. Voters instead would get to rank their choices for president, governor and legislative seats on their ballots. Those preferences would help to determine the winner if no candidate got a majority of the votes.

"There is no place in Maine for an unfair system that leaves people feeling their vote does not matter," Cummings told the Legislature's Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee during a public hearing Monday.

With an instant runoff, the candidate with the lowest vote total would be eliminated. His or her votes would shift to the remaining candidates, according to preferences that the voters list. The elimination would continue until one candidate wins a majority.

In races with three or more candidates, elected officials often win less than 50 percent of the votes. For example, each of Maine's last five governors has won at least one election without capturing a majority.

If the new voting system wins approval, Maine will be the first state to have it. Now, only cities such as San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass., and countries such as Ireland and Australia use the instant runoff system.

Lawmakers have rejected the proposal twice in the last four years. But the second time, they called for a study by the Secretary of State's Office. It found that the state could transition to the new system, but the change could be costly and create challenges for local election officials.

Kate Dufour, a lobbyist for the Maine Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, said the instant runoff system would create new costs, cause confusion for voters and make ballot counting more difficult for clerks.

But election-reform advocates see the idea gaining support each year and plan to continue to push it. Strimling said a pilot program in Portland and a few other Maine communities may be a good next step.

"If it doesn't pass, it will go farther than it did last time," said Rep. John Patrick, D-Rumford, co-chairman of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee.

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