For the Democrats dead-set on defeating Republican Sen. Susan Collins this November, a recent poll of the Maine U.S. Senate race brought seemingly distressing news: Democratic candidate Sara Gideon was leading Collins by a single point, per the survey, but a Green Party-aligned independent candidate was polling at a surprisingly high 6 percent.
Given that Green candidates usually pull votes from the left, Collins’ legions of detractors on Resistance Twitter cried spoiler—fearing that in a tight, hotly contested race, the Green Party’s Lisa Savage would all but secure Collins another six years in the Senate.
There is only one state, however, where that straightforward reading of the poll would be backwards—a bad sign for Collins, not a good one—and it happens to be the state she calls home.
This fall, Maine is set to be the only state in the country to choose its president and members of Congress using a process called ranked choice voting. Under that system, voters are instructed to list their candidate preferences in order, effectively offering up a first choice, a second choice, and so on. Those backup picks only come into play if no candidate cracks a majority of votes on the first ballot: that sparks what is essentially an instant runoff election, in which the lowest-performing candidates drop and their supporters’ second choices receive their votes.
Maine Republicans loathe this system and have fought it tooth-and-nail since voters in the state approved its use for federal elections in 2016. But an ongoing legal effort to overturn the system is losing steam, and time, with the November election fast approaching. As Maine emerges as a pivotal battleground for control of the U.S. Senate—and even for the White House—a powerful ally of President Donald Trump has weighed in, joining local Republicans in laying the groundwork for a broader assault on Maine’s wonky voting system.
Earlier this month, Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson devoted an entire segment to the evils of ranked choice voting, declaring that Maine Democrats were “trying to rig the outcome” of the 2020 election through the system. His guest was Dale Crafts, GOP nominee for U.S. House in Maine’s 2nd District.
That particular seat, which swung hard to Trump in 2016, is the source of many Republicans’ ranked-choice grief. In 2018, former GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin had a 2,000-vote lead over Democrat Jared Golden but failed to get a majority on the initial ballot. Under the rules of ranked choice voting, the third-party candidates dropped and Golden cleaned up as the second choice among their supporters, ultimately giving him a majority.
Poliquin went to court to contend that he was the rightful winner, but Golden’s victory was upheld. Crafts, who is now running against Golden, told Carlson that Poliquin’s loss revealed the true purpose of ranked choice voting. “It’s just another sham by the Democrats to try to steal races,” warned Crafts.
Ironically, ranked choice will play no part in the election of Carlson’s guest—Crafts and Golden are the only candidates on the House ballot in Maine’s 2nd this year—but the system figures to be a huge influence on Collins’ race. It could be that the biggest complicating factor for the longtime senator’s re-election bid is not her relationship to President Donald Trump, or her famous stand for Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, but the way her state has decided to elect its leaders.
Joining Collins and Gideon on the U.S. Senate ballot in Maine are Savage and Max Linn, a longshot conservative independent candidate who, during the first candidate debate last week, went viral as he plowed past moderator questions and declared “I have to be out of the box tonight.”
If no candidate clears 50 percent and Savage, who is running as a “Senator for People, Planet, and Peace,” is dropped in the third round, her supporters could easily put Gideon over the top. Savage’s campaign has openly encouraged its supporters to rank Gideon second—they tout a “#VoteBlueNumberTwo” social media slogan—and Savage herself says she plans to do the same.
There are many ways to game out the ranked choice system, and Maine political observers caution that in this independent-minded state, elections don’t always shake out intuitively. “Both major party campaigns are thinking about this,” says Mark Brewer, a professor of politics at the University of Maine in Orono. “My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that Savage will have more support than Max Linn.”
Some in Maine GOP circles believe in Collins’ ability to pull out the victory, but they also don’t have a hard time seeing how the environment around the ranked choice system could throw yet another headwind her way.
“It could be a real problem for Collins,” says Eric Lusk, a longtime Republican activist who formerly served as GOP chair for Maine’s largest county. He said there’s a risk that Linn’s supporters might just rank him first and leave it at that. “He’d siphon 2-3 points, people get confused on ranked choice, they don't put Collins second, Linn gets knocked out, but the voter didn’t put in choices two, three, four… It could happen.”
The way that Mainers adapt to ranked choice voting—only in its second cycle of use for federal elections here—could have impacts that reverberate far beyond the state. The Maine race is one of three or four toss-up races nationally that could tip control of the Senate to Democrats, or keep it in GOP hands.
But it’s not just Collins who could suffer as a result of the way the system plays out this year; Trump could, too. Maine, as Carlson noted in his Fox segment, is one of two states that awards its electoral votes by congressional district. In a tight Electoral College race, even the swingy 2nd District’s lone electoral vote could make a big difference for Trump, or for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, both of whom are targeting the district. All recent public polls of the 2nd show Trump and Biden neck-and-neck with neither clearing 50 percent; multiple third-party candidates are on the ballot with them, including Green and Libertarian nominees.
Ranked choice voting, say the system’s backers, doesn’t inherently advantage a Democratic or Republican candidate, since it depends on who’s in the race and how it’s run. They argue the system puts an end to the idea of spoiler candidates and forces candidates to campaign to win real majorities, not narrow pluralities. It has been used for state and local elections nationwide, including in Maine, for a decade or longer, and Maine voters have upheld its usage in two different ballot referendums.
But Maine Republicans see things differently—“horseshit” was Lusk’s preferred adjective for the ranked choice system—and they’ve been fighting to repeal it since it was instituted for federal elections in 2016. Before 2020, conservatives elsewhere have dismissed ranked choice voting as a bad idea that’s inconsistent with the “one person, one vote” principle. Currently, a Republican-led legal effort is underway to block it from being used in Maine’s presidential election, but the effort hit a snag last week; with absentee ballots set to be mailed out to voters within weeks, time is running out to change the procedures.
Proponents of ranked choice voting have argued that GOP opposition to the system stems from sour grapes over the Poliquin race and perhaps a tacit acknowledgement of their limitations in securing majorities in Maine, which leans Democratic overall. Rob Richie, president and CEO of the nonprofit group FairVote, which advocates for ranked choice voting, told The Daily Beast it’s ridiculous to equate “asking a person to win a majority” with “trying to steal an election.”
Compared to some Maine Republicans, Collins herself has been circumspect on the ranked choice issue. In 2018, she said the system can produce an “odd outcome” if a candidate with the most votes after one round does not win.
But the GOP’s official opposition to ranked choice may present a challenge: their voters have grown to hate the system, but their candidates‚ from Trump and Collins on down, need to leverage it to win.
“It definitely adds another layer of complexity, because the Democrat Party has focused on educating people how to manage the controls, where on the Republican side, the effort has been more on getting rid of the change in the voting system,” said Lusk. “So the Democrats embrace it, and they educate people on how it functions. Do that over four, five, six years, and you’re going to be in a position to have a few thousand more people understand it on your side, and a few thousand fewer on the other side.”
That difference, said Lusk, could be Gideon’s margin of victory. A longtime Maine political operative, speaking anonymously to describe the race candidly, said that Collins’ team consists of seasoned strategists who understand clearly the challenges posed.
“Considering that what a campaign has to do is not turn off the supporters of the ‘fringe’ candidates, my guess is they understand that as well as anybody,” said the operative. “If I were running either the Gideon or Collins campaigns, I would make an effort to do some subtle outreach to supporters of the other two candidates.”
In response to questions from The Daily Beast, the Collins and Gideon campaigns did not directly say whether or not they were reaching out to other candidates’ supporters to urge them to rank their candidates second.
“We believe when voters look at who is running in this race, there is one clear choice,” said Annie Clark, a spokesperson for Collins’ campaign. “Our goal is to ensure that Senator Collins is the winner, which is why we’re encouraging voters to choose her as their first choice.”
“Our campaign is focused on making sure that Maine people know Sara Gideon is the best candidate to replace Susan Collins in the Senate,” said a spokesperson for Gideon, who added GOP attacks on ranked choice voting are a “transparent political maneuver” and that Mainers have supported the system.
Savage, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast by email that ranked-choice has been “core” to her campaign’s messaging. “We don't even really say, ‘vote for Lisa,’” said Savage. “We say ‘Rank Lisa first.’”
“We have spent a great deal of time and effort educating voters about how RCV changes political races—we refer to it as a ‘new politics,’” Savage said. “There is still a lot of education to be done, as many voters still don't understand exactly how it works, and will talk about ‘spoilers’ and ‘splitting the vote’ as reasons they don't want to support me. That's a huge opportunity for us, as learning about how RCV actually works makes them think about the race anew.”
To third-party candidates like Savage, ranked choice presents a totally fresh way to campaign.
For others, the broader upside of ranked choice voting has been limited.
For all the controversy, cable news vitriol and months of legal deadlock that Maine’s ranked choice system has sparked, the system has failed to live up to supporters’ arguments that it would fundamentally reshape campaigns in a more positive way, argued the veteran Maine operative. But, they said, that doesn’t mean Republican hatred of the system is justified.
“I don’t understand why Republicans have such vitriol toward it, other than the fact that they think it was a Democratic idea,” said the operative. “And I don’t know why Democrats are so enthusiastic about it, because it really hasn’t brought to fruition the things they sold us about it… I guess each party has dug in because they want to oppose what the other guys are doing.”