I was in line for chili in the Longworth House Office building’s cafeteria when my editor messaged me: The Maine secretary of state was about to tabulate the results of the state’s 2nd congressional district race. It was November 2018 and Democrats had already secured their new House majority, but the stakes of ME-02 were still high: It was a district Trump had won in 2016—a victory that gave him an electoral college vote, thanks to Maine’s wonky distribution—and it would be the first-ever House race decided by ranked-choice voting. I’d covered Maine a bit earlier in the cycle and wanted to see how this new system played out.
Mainers are an independent lot who, like men I once dated, don’t really like to put a “label” on things—in particular, on their political party affiliation. In many races, Democratic and Republican candidates are joined by those affiliated with minor political parties or who run as independents. Ranked-choice voting allows voters to vote for multiple candidates, in order of preference. The candidate with more than 50 percent of the vote wins; if that doesn’t happen on the first round of voting, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to their voters’ second-choice candidate. This continues round by round until a candidate has a majority of the votes.
So, chili secured, I sat down to watch the presentation.
The secretary of state’s office directed me to a Facebook livestream, which was trained in the direction of a projector screen dancing with the familiar swirl of the Windows 7 screensaver. Matt Dunlap, the Maine secretary of state, and Julie Flynn, his deputy, stood to the side, awkwardly vamping as they awaited—I shit you not—for a staffer to load up a memory stick with the results and work through a find-and-replace in Microsoft Excel to account for spelling irregularities with a candidate’s name. Oh, so this was how this was gonna go? Ranked-choice voting was touted as the sophisticated evolution in democracy reform that voting rights advocates have been boosting for years. It was supposed to free us of our two-party tyranny, to be the hominid to our Neanderthal plurality methods that gave us George W. Bush instead of Al Gore because Ralph Nader didn’t get dismissed for his measly 2.74 percent. And here it was…in the hands of…Ctrl+H and a laptop that looked no more sophisticated than what I’d written my college papers on.
Ten minutes passed. (That was fine; as I mentioned, I had chili.) Then 15. Then 20. My faith in fair and safe elections was frankly feeling a little tested as the minutes wore on. But the delay also afforded Dunlap and Flynn to settle into a charming little routine that was part slapstick, part civics lesson, on every step of their shoestring-looking operation that ultimately assuaged my growing fears. Over the course of 27 minutes, viewers like me learned all about ExpressRunoff (the computer program used to run the ranked-choice-voting algorithm), why some ballots had to be manually tabulated instead of scanned into the results on the memory stick (there’s a lot of people who like to spill things on ballots in the Pine Tree State, turns out), and Dunlap and Flynn’s astrological signs (Dunlap is a “big picture guy” Sagittarius; Flynn a Virgo who “can’t see the forest for the tick that is on the white pine needle on the trees”).
And then—bloop! There the results were. Election over: Democrat Jared Golden won. There were cheers! Not for Jared—that is against the rules of a nonpartisan office, after all—but oh my god, this janky little setup worked! Maine’s experiment to satisfy all of its fiercely independent political factions had gotten it done.
Susan Collins detractors, I’m sure, do not share in my hope to see some sort of ranked-choice replay this year. They’d like to see Democrat Sara Gideon win in a landslide on the first ballot and render the precious Excel presentation moot. But I really hope I get to watch the Mainers have their particularly Mainer moment: Their very human ballot tabulation that’s been tailor-made to their deeply Mainer selves. —Kara Voght