Maine moves toward presidential primaries with ranked voting

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine's Legislature sent a proposal to the governor Wednesday to ditch the state's presidential caucuses for a primary system that would be the nation's first to allow voters to rank candidates.

The Democratic-led Senate approved funding the bill, which had already passed the House. It now heads to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who hasn't taken a position.

As the 2020 presidential primary season nears, Maine is among an increasingly small handful of states that still have caucuses, including Iowa, Nevada and Wyoming. That's down from 15 states in 2008, as several have dropped traditional caucuses for state-run or party-run primaries.

If primaries are approved, Maine voters will use ranked-choice voting to indicate which candidates they want delegates to support. That could get hairy in the Democratic primary, where more than 20 people are running.

Maine voters in 2016 approved ranked voting, but Maine's Constitution limits the system for use in federal races and primaries. A separate bill awaiting a final Senate vote could solidify the use of ranked voting in all federal races and primaries.

"Legislative majorities in Augusta have respected the will of the people and acted to align the letter of Maine's election law with the intent of voters," said Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting.

The system allows voters to rank each candidate on a ballot in order of preference. If no candidate gets more than 50%, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and the second choices of everyone who ranked that candidate first are distributed. That process continues until someone receives more than 50% of the vote.

Caucuses feature often lengthy group discussions at meetings where party members select candidates to support, while voters at statewide presidential primaries instead cast ballots for candidates.

Supporters of both ranked voting and primaries say such reforms get more voters involved, although supporters of caucuses have argued the same.

Local voting groups say the image of long lines at Maine's 2016 caucuses discourages voters and that caucuses simply can't engage as many voters as primaries.

Maine also had primaries in 1996 and 2000, but parties called for a return to caucuses, long viewed as a small-town approach to engaging and organizing voters in the largely rural New England state. A 2016 Maine law switched the state to presidential primary elections, but it was never funded and ended up being automatically repealed.