Democracy Maine is a collaborative initiative between three nonpartisan organizations: the League of Women Voters of Maine, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, and Maine Students Vote. Their primary focus is on improving government transparency and accessibility in the state of Maine.
Central to Democracy Maine's mission is to enhance the electoral process, ensure voter rights and engagement, and reduce the influence of private funding in politics.
Additionally, Democracy Maine played a foundational role in creating Mainers for Modern Elections and continues to hold a significant leadership position within that coalition. Through its endeavors, Democracy Maine seeks to bring about a more inclusive and efficient political process in Maine.
To learn more about the efforts underway in Maine, we spoke with Anna Kellar, executive director of Democracy Maine.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anna Kellar: I grew up in Maine and was always interested in politics. As I was finishing up [school], an opportunity came up to get involved in a campaign back in Maine to expand and defend our clean election system, which is our small donor public funding system for candidates for state legislature. I'd been aware a little bit that Maine had been a leader on this, but as I talked to people around the world about anti-corruption and democracy reform, it [became] so clear that there was a huge amount to be done back at home.
It struck me as an amazing opportunity to figure out, in my backyard, what [improving democracy] looked like, and I'm so glad that I got involved. Nothing teaches you about politics, about democracy, about civic engagement, like running a [local] campaign. I started out by getting people to sit at the polls on election day and volunteer to collect signatures for a ballot initiative. It is empowering to give people a specific concrete task that is within their reach but that they can see will directly impact the laws. It was a wonderful way to get involved in organizing, and essentially, I've never left. I fell in love with the possibilities of combining democracy reform and big ideas with the kind of community organizing that you can do in a place like Maine.
Anna: Maine is a pretty purple state in a lot of ways. Over the last 10 or 12 years, we've gone from complete Republican control to complete Democratic control to things in the middle. So, against that backdrop, [Maine] is an interesting place to talk about [innovative election] ideas. We’ve always had that kind of independent streak; we've had both people who are not enrolled with a party being elected to statewide office, we've also had relatively strong third parties in Maine at various points, and we have a pretty strong group of independent voters. So that also influences our politics. We can't get too far in one direction or another.
Alana: Speaking of citizens, how does the ballot initiative process work in your state?
Anna: One of the things we have going for us [in Maine] is the citizen initiative process where you can collect signatures, put an initiative on the ballot, and have that passed by referendum. That has been how we've gotten many of Maine's advances, from the original Clean Elections Law in 1996 to ranked choice voting (also referred to as ranked choice voting) in 2016.
[Citizen initiatives] have been a big part of the picture. When the legislature isn't doing the right thing, we have this check on the process, [and] can go directly to the people. [One example of this] that I'm particularly proud of is when the legislature in 2011 decided to get rid of same-day voter registration. Maine [voters] did a people's veto; the referendum brought [same-day voter registration] back and had strong bipartisan support.
Anna: We haven't yet had an election where independents can vote in the primaries, but we're about to have two, both the presidential primary in March and then our statewide primaries in June. We're thinking a lot right now about how to get the word out to independent voters that they have this ability to participate that they didn't before, and a big part of that is using the lessons that we had from ranked choice voting, how to implement and educate people about that.
[Our focus is ensuring] that the people have all the tools they need to talk to voters about [our new primary system]. I'm excited about going to voters and saying, “Hey, you've got good news, this thing that has been frustrating you, it's not a law anymore. You can actually participate in these upcoming elections!”
And especially for voters who have a strong aversion to joining a political party, but one party or the other controls most of their district, ultimately, it's that primary that'll decide who represents them. So [letting independents] know they can participate now is a great thing to say. We're also getting online voter registration rolled out for the first time and the ability to be on a permanent list for absentee voting, so there's a big push for voter education around these good changes. [These are] exciting things, but we want voters to be aware of them.
Anna: Ranked choice voting in Maine came about as a solution to a problem that many voters were feeling, which was the “spoiler problem.” Because we frequently have three or more candidates running for office, we had a couple of prominent examples of a candidate winning with only a [plurality] of support. Once people started looking into that, they realized, "Wow, this is happening a lot — I think all but one of our governors since 1970 have been elected without a majority.” And so as we were looking at this, asking, “Well, how do you fix that problem? Ranked choice voting is a great solution.” Fast forward, [RCV] won the ballot in 2016.
We then had our state Supreme Court rule that the state constitution didn't allow for ranked choice voting and that there had to be a plurality winner. Lots of people think that decision was wrong. The Alaska Supreme Court decided a similar question differently when they heard it. So, we certainly are not taking that decision as the final word on that question about the state constitution. But it did mean that we [aren’t] allowed to use ranked choice voting for the general election for state offices. [However], we can use it for primaries from state legislature through Governor, Congress, and Senate President, and in the general election for the federal offices.
Anna: It has been really powerful to see RCV in effect in the statewide races where we have it, and it's made a big impact in the outcomes. In the process, especially when we've looked at primary elections, that's where we've started to see some of the best benefits [of RCV]. Candidates [are] cross endorsing quicker and coming together around a candidate after the election because they didn't alienate everybody along the way. [There’s been] more outreach to broader groups of people. I think we're starting to see some of those benefits in the local races as it has the potential for getting rid of the spoiler problem. [The implementation of RCV] was about solving one problem, but I think we're also finding as we go that there are a bunch of other advantages that it can have in different contexts [outside of solving just the spoiler problem.]
Anna: Portland already had ranked choice voting for mayor before we headed [to] the state level in 2020, but we passed that and expanded it to City Council and School Board with over 80% of the vote in favor. And then, the following year, we passed it in Westbrook, the next city over.
This is a great example “the more people use it, the more they like it.” And so now we're continuing to look for other places in the state where it makes sense to use RCV. As we start to get more towns, hopefully outside of the greater Portland area, to take this on, there'll be more people who have been elected from a variety of different backgrounds, and more winners create more enthusiasm and more candidates who've used it and understand how to make it work within their political context.
Anna: I'm excited to see the data now that Maine will have semi-open primaries because many statistics show that younger individuals are independents. They just don't want to align one way or the other. And so, with Maine now allowing younger people and independents to vote, there'll hopefully be a higher turnout.
Both online voter registration and semi-open primaries are two things that [Maine voters] have just been like — “I can't believe we don't have this. Isn't this ridiculous?” — for such a long time. For [years], I've talked to voters at their door about getting involved, and these are things that regular people will bring up as sources of frustration. I'm so glad I now get to be like, “You know what? We've fixed that problem!”