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Reporter Debrief: Ticket Splitting, Ranked-Choice Voting & Maine's Close Senate Race

Two images of Sen. Susan Collins facing Sara Gideon.
Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press
Elise Amendola, Associated Press
Incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins, left, was narrowly reelected over Democratic opponent Sara Gideon in the November 2020 election.

Maine stands out among its New England neighbors in the results of the 2020 election. Democrat Joe Biden carried the state, but the unique way it allocates its four electoral votes led to Maine providing the sole New England vote to Republican Donald Trump.

On the same ballots supporting Biden, Mainers re-elected a Republican to the Senate and returned two Democrats to the U.S. House.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Mal Leary, senior political correspondent for Maine Public Radio who's covered Maine politics for decades, to discuss Maine's 2020 election outcome. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: In 2016, Donald Trump secured a single New England electoral vote when he carried Maine's 2nd Congressional district. [Hillary Clinton that year secured Maine's three other electoral votes, one for the 1st Congressional district and the state's two at-large electoral votes.] How did he fare in his re-election bid in 2020 with Maine voters?

Mal Leary: It's pretty much a replay of 2016. Joe Biden got a little bit better vote margin totals in the entire state [52.9% compared to Clinton's 47.9% in 2016]. We split our electoral votes by Congressional district, one electoral vote per district, and the remaining two "at large" go to whoever won the state as a whole.

Donald Trump held his margin from four years ago, which was amazing in that there was such a huge amount of ticket-splitting going on in the 2nd Congressional District. He took the district, but the Democratic incumbent congressman got reelected with a 6-point margin. There was an awful lot of folks who voted for Trump who then turned around and voted for the Democratic Congressman, Jared Golden.

It was also a very watched contest between Sen. Susan Collins, who was facing a tight race with Democrat Sara Gideon. But Sen. Collins ended up winning reelection. How did that play out?

It was interesting, because those of us who watched the race closely kept thinking, something just doesn't ring right here, in terms of the 2nd Congressional district. It is just traditionally more conservative. What you had, we think, was an undersampling of those conservative voters. And that may be in part due to the way pollsters are conducting polls these days.

More from VPR: 'Expecting Too Much From Polls': Comparing Election Predictions, Outcomes

That is, and you probably have some of the same problem in Vermont, we don't have a great penetration of high-speed access on the internet. Even though many pollsters are now using a modelthat calls for landline phone calls, cell phone and internet contacts.

Well, in the 2nd Congressional district, we've got some pretty poor connections. And there's a whole group of people you're not going to reach on the internet. And [the pollsters] didn't do that, and it was "Sara Gideon up by one or two" or "Collins down by one or two," with a margin of error that was three or four points. [As of Monday, Nov. 9, unofficial Associated Press data has Collins winning with a nearly 9-point margin].

I'd like to get into this idea of ranked-choice voting in this election... Maine implemented this back in 2016. This was going to be the first time a presidential election would face this voting system in Maine. But as I understand it, it did not ended up being implemented.  I wonder, if it was [used], how it may have affected a very close race like the Collins-Gideon Senate race, if neither candidate got 50% of the vote.

Well, ranked-choice voting did apply to the Senate race, if Susan Collins had not gotten 50%, almost 52%  of the vote. The threshold is 50%, plus one. It's very confusing. It doesn't apply to a bunch of races. For example, it doesn't apply to the governorship, because the definition of who wins... is in the [state] Constitution, and couldn't be changed by a citizen initiative.

But the presidential electors are covered [by ranked-choice voting]. For example, in the 2nd District, say Trump got 49.9%, it would have gone to ranked-choice voting, because there were three other candidates, besides the two major party candidates, on our ballot. Now, they didn't have a lot of votes, but if it had been close, ranked-choice voting would have kicked in, and folks' second choice would have started to be added, then the third choice, until somebody got a majority.

Here in the Vermont Statehouse, we have Independent, a Dover Rep. named Laura Sibilia. She has sponsored efforts to bring ranked-choice voting to Vermont. And here's another way that she says the voting system would be improved over our current system if we did go to that ranked voting. Here's what she said:

"This removes the spoiler effect, and it really requires that all candidates campaign in such a manner that they're thinking about being somebody's second choice."

So Mal, can you sort of explain that spoiler effect? Have you seen this in local or statewide elections since it was approved by those voters in 2016?

We had this situation this time in the Senate race between Sara Gideon and Susan Collins. There were two Independents in that race, and the so-called "Green Independent," she was an Independent who was a Green Party member, kept saying, "give your second vote to Sara Gideon. She's closer to our philosophy than Susan Collins."

So you had this deliberate attempt, during debates and other forums, where one of the Independents was really saying, "Take advantage of your second vote. Vote for me first, but your second vote should go to this other person." It was the first time we've seen that overt call for someone to vote one way for the first place, and [vote] somewhere else on the second round.

Now, there conceivably could have been a third round in that race if it had been close enough, but it wasn't. In this case, you had Susan Collins outright win more than the 50%, and that's why ranked-choice voting did not kick in for that race.

More from Vermont Edition: Is Ranked-Choice A Better Way To Vote?

When all is said and done in Maine, Democrats maintain control of the state Legislature in this election. What should a New England audience know about what this means for Maine lawmakers, and what they're trying to accomplish? 

Maine's a purple state. We came off a Republican governor who served for two terms, to be replaced by a Democrat. Collins is a Republican. We have two Democratic members of Congress. And the Legislature is strongly Democratic in the Senate. The Republicans picked up a few seats in the House, making it closer. But still, Democrats have control.

You know, most Maine voters do not pick who they're going to vote for by party. They vote for the person.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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