This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Besides the surge in vote-by-mail ushered in by the pandemic, we can add another layer to why it could take awhile to find out which party controls the U.S. Senate in 2021.
After being one of the most popular senators in the United States, Susan Collins is now one of the least liked. And, with President Donald Trump running behind former VP Joe Biden in Maine, Collins needs to do more than just get a plurality — more votes — than other candidates. To keep her seat, Collins would need to get a majority of the vote, and determining if that has happened could take a week or more.
That’s because since 2018 Maine has been using ranked choice voting in congressional races. In this system, also known as instant runoff voting, if there are more than two candidates in a race, voters have the option of ranking them. For instance, if there are four candidates, each voter could indicate their first, second, third and fourth choices.
Then, if on Election Day one candidate gets a majority of vote, that person wins the race. That’s what happened in the 2018 Maine Senate race, which included three candidates. Sen. Angus King received 54.3 percent of the vote and so won reelection.
But if no candidate gets an outright majority, a ranked choice tally begins. First the candidate with the least votes is excluded. Then election officials look at any second place rankings from voters who put that candidate first. Then those votes are moved to the remaining candidates and added to their tallies for the second round of voting. When voters for an excluded candidate don’t rank another candidate, their votes drop out of the runoff. This process goes on until one candidate receives a majority.
With ranked choice voting, it’s possible for the candidate who has an initial plurality to lose the race once the instant runoff is completed. That happened in 2018 in Maine’s Second Congressional District. In the four-way race, Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin led on election night with 46.3 percent of the vote. Since this wasn’t a majority, there was a ranked choice tally. At its conclusion, Democrat Jared Golden won the seat with 50.62% of the vote. Poliquin claimed ranked choice was unconstitutional but lost his case in a federal district court, with a ruling by a judge who had been nominated by Gov. Paul LePage for a Maine judgeship and then by Trump for the federal bench.
Now Collins is facing her biggest reelection challenge ever and it will be a ranked choice race. While Democrat Sara Gideon is her most well known challenger, the ballot will include at least four candidates and perhaps five. Lisa Savage, a Green independent and Max Linn, a populist who strongly backs Trump, have qualified for the ballot. Tiffany Bond, a center-left independent who ran in the 2018 ME-2 race, hasn’t gathered enough signatures but is challenging the law governing independent candidates in court, arguing that the pandemic interfered with her effort.
Collins’ weakness, the slate of candidates, and Republican dislike of ranked choice matter
Collins’ ability to win under these rules is affected by her standing in the state, the configuration of the slate of candidates, and a pattern of partisan polarization toward ranked choice in Maine.
By every normal metric, Collins’ standing has fallen. Her approval ratings in the Morning Consult poll dropped from 67 percent in early 2017 to 42 percent in late 2019. Collins lost the endorsements of a wide variety of groups that helped her look centrist and independent, including pro-choice, LGBTQ rights, environmental and labor groups. Last week two groups shifted from Collins to Democrat Sara Gideon, the Maine State Council of Machinists and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
And critical to the ranked choice voting system, every 2020 poll — including a leaked internal poll in which she was uncharacteristically ahead of Gideon — shows her receiving between 42 percent and 45 percent of the vote. Those are not only poor reelection numbers for a Senate incumbent, but they are also far behind the 69 percent Collins received in 2014. If Collins’ election day vote lands in that territory, she would need to pick up votes from voters whose top ranked candidate isn’t one of the top two.
Thus the configuration of the candidates matter. Just based on their positions on issues and views toward Collins, voters who picked Lisa Savage (and Tiffany Bond, who may end up on the ballot) are probably more likely to rank Gideon before Collins. While Savage and Bond would prefer that they win the race — and this is more possible with ranked choice than under plurality voting — they have been quite critical of Collins.
In looking at how backers of Max Linn could matter, his positions deserve consideration, but so do partisan views toward ranked choice voting. Linn is an unusual figure. He’s run as a Democrat and as a member of the Reform Party. Linn then ran as a Republican when he sought the 2018 Republican nomination in the Maine U.S. Senate race (but didn’t qualify for the primary after fraudulent signatures were discovered and an insufficient number remained). He’s declared himself strongly pro-Trump and backs both student loan debt forgiveness and a five year moratorium on all immigration. Linn could attract votes from Republicans who see Collins as insufficiently pro-Trump and possibly from other voters.
But would Linn voters ultimately rank Collins second? That’s doubtful.
Based on previous partisan patterns, Trump Republicans who back Linn are less likely than Savage and Bond voters to even rank other candidates. Ranked choice in Maine has been liked more and used more by Democrats and independents. In a series of referenda on ranked choice voting, Republican party officials, candidates and voters have been more negative toward the system. Just this year the Maine Republican party and the Trump campaign engaged in an effort to stop ranked choice from being used in the presidential race; this is still undergoing litigation.
Maine Republicans dislike ranked choice because, while it’s been backed by good government groups, they associate it with attempts to adopt the system after LePage was first elected governor with 37.6 percent of the vote in 2010. LePage himself strongly opposed RCV, and wrote “stolen election” on the certificate certifying Jared Golden’s 2018 ME-2 win. The defeated incumbent in that race, Bruce Poliquin, has continued to call ranked choice “a scam.”
And there’s another reason why Linn backers would be less likely to rank Collins second. Rather than simply ignoring Linn or appealing to his voters, there have been efforts from Republicans to squelch Linn’s run.
Former state legislator Mary Small, who the Bangor Daily News called “an ally of Collins,” filed (and then withdrew) a challenge to his nominating signatures. And Charlie Webster, a former Maine Republican party chair, wrote Linn, strongly discouraging him from staying in the race. According to reporter Steve Collins (no relation to Sen. Collins), Webster told Linn, “You run, get destroyed based on something you’ve said or done, spend hundreds of thousands more, lose badly and are shortly forgotten.”
“You announce and the [Republican National Committee] and other Republican groups will destroy you, Webster said, suggesting that Linn back Collins and advising, “Trust me, you will go through living hell. I honestly feel bad at this point for you and your family.”
So, as an incumbent whose approval ratings and reelect numbers are in the 40s at best, running against a Democrat and independent candidates whose supporters are unlikely to rank her second, Collins faces the task of winning majority support. This challenge exists as she is being criticized by the Lincoln Project, her opponents and an array of grassroots organizations on her votes, on her weakness in confronting Trump (who is running 10 percentage points behind Biden in Maine) and on her straying from the Maine paradigm of independent, courageous political leadership.
Of course Collins could still win reelection. Her campaign has engaged in zealous credit-claiming and in attacks on Gideon and she won her last race with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Collins could do so with an Election Day majority or after a ranked choice tally. However, the existence of this system for the Senate race complicates her strategy and could very well delay us knowing who prevailed.
Amy Fried is the chair of University of Maine’s political science department and she oversees the school’s Maine Policy Scholar Program.