The Senate career of Susan Collins is hanging by a thread in Maine, yet the lifeline she previously had to cling to won’t be there for her.
For years, Republicans relied on the state’s independent streak to syphon votes away from Democrats and toward third-party candidates. But Maine voters approved ranked-choice voting in 2016, making the state the first in the nation to use the procedure for federal elections. Massachusetts and Alaska voters are considering implementing ranked choice in tonight’s elections, and a number of municipalities in states around the country already use the system for local races.
Ranked-choice voting allows a voter to choose their favored candidate, even if they’re a third-party candidate with no shot, without risking accidentally electing somebody they despise. To do so, a voter can rank their candidates, rather than vote for just one.
The system has come under criticism from across the political spectrum, especially in Maine. The system faced legal challenges earlier this year from opponents who sued Gov. Janet Mills over the “confusing” nature of the process. As journalist Shawn Griffiths wrote in July, however, that’s hardly the case: “according to FairVote, 75% of all Maine voters—including Democrats AND Republicans—surveyed said they found voting under RCV to be ‘easy.'”
Republicans in Massachusetts have been opposed to the commonwealth’s ballot measure. A committee formed in August against ranked choice voting included state GOP member Anthony Amore, who told Commonwealth Magazine in August that the system “sounds beautiful in a mathematical equation but practically speaking it’s disastrous” because of the small differences between some candidates.
Lisa Savage, an unenrolled independent with ties to the Maine Green Independent Party, ran her Senate campaign explicitly asking voters to rank her first in their preference and Sara Gideon, a Democrat and the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, second. Under ranked-choice voting, if no candidate wins an outright majority, the lowest vote-getter’s votes are redistributed and so on, until there is a winner.
“Certainly we all would like to see Susan Collins retire,” Savage explained to The Intercept.
Establishment politicians in both parties have been hostile to ranked-choice voting and have tried to block it from going into effect, as it allows third-party candidates to compete in elections without being tarred as spoilers.
An Emerson College poll conducted between October 29 and 31 showed Gideon with a 48 percent to 42 percent lead over Collins, and 61 percent of supporters of both Savage and independent Max Linn, polling at 5 percent and 1 percent, respectively, would back Gideon on their second choice.
Collins entered the Senate in 1997 as one of Maine’s two independently minded Republican women senators alongside Olympia Snowe. The junior senator survived in the New England state as a politically savvy member of the GOP in a liberalizing region by touting her independence and reasonableness, but the tension between her party and constituents met its match in her support of President Donald Trump.
Gideon’s run focused as much on portraying Collins as out of touch with Mainers as it did on health care and a higher minimum wage. The incumbent’s vote for Trump Supreme Court nominees Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and Amy Coney Barrett last week was a decisive moment in her career, allowing Gideon to paint Collins as more beholden to the president than her constituents.
“Lisa Savage is absolutely right,” said Kat Calvin, founder and executive director of Spread the Vote. “Ranked-choice voting is actually something that a lot of us want.”
Collins recognized the danger the runoff system presented to her candidacy early on, telling the New York Times on Sunday that she was fighting for a clear majority on Election Day to head off any chance of second choices being a factor in the race.
“My goal is to get 50 percent on Election Day, and ranked-choice voting would not come into play,” said Collins. “So that’s what I hope.”
The Maine system was put in place partly in response to former Republican Gov. Paul LePage winning the governorship twice without a majority. He took advantage of third parties to govern with 37.6 percent and 48.2 percent of the vote in the 2010 and 2014 elections. In 2018, incumbent Sen. Angus King won a clear majority on the first round, and the second choices did not trigger. Savage told The Intercept that she is a fan of the procedure and finds it best for democracy.
“As a school teacher — I just retired from 25 years of teaching school — I used to use it for things like the all-important day before vacation,” said Savage. “What movie shall we watch? Because if you just do a first-past-the-post on a decision like that, you are very likely to pick a movie that does not have majority support, and you don’t want that.”
“It’s a much better structure for expressing the will of the majority of voters,” she added.
The race was one of the most expensive in the country and the most expensive in Maine’s history. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that Gideon raised a staggering $68,577,474, while Collins took in $26,511,555. The amount of cash in the race was reportedly so high, with a total of $120 million spent when outside groups were included, that both candidates struggled to spend what they raised in the waning weeks of the campaign. As BuzzFeed News reported last week, the media spending has saved a number of local media outlets.
Gideon met Savage in the town of Brunswick earlier Tuesday, where the two shared a friendly elbow bump.
Savage said that although she and Gideon have political differences, she shares the desire to see Collins gone.
“We want to be perceived as being on the let’s-retire-Susan Collins team,” Savage told The Intercept. “We don’t want confused Democrats thinking, Oh she’s a spoiler for Sara Gideon. You know, in a ranked-choice voting race, I really can’t be a spoiler. But people are still kind of buying into the false dichotomy.”
Nathan Bernard, a journalist at the Mainer News Co-op and longtime statewide political observer, said that in his view, Savage’s votes show that the Democratic Party should be looking to Maine for guidance in winning elections going forward.
“Ranked-choice voting allows you to vote your conscience and brings disaffected people into the electoral process,” said Bernard. “The system allowed Savage to run an issue-based campaign focused on Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, while still promoting her cohort to rank the less progressive Gideon second. If Democrats pushed to expand ranked-choice voting, they would grow the Democratic electorate and actually win elections like tonight in Maine.”
Savage’s move to campaign in part on the decision showed strength of character, Spread the Vote’s Calvin told The Intercept.
“I think Lisa Savage here is showing that she is in solidarity with the party, that she really wants the vote of people’s voices to be heard, that we don’t always have to run in direct opposition and animosity with other candidates,” said Calvin.
“I think that what Lisa Savage is doing shows a lot of class,” Calvin added. “It shows a lot of integrity.”