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Maine on the cusp of ranked-choice voting for president

UPDATE: This story was updated Thursday morning with new developments

The recent run of success for advocates of ranked-choice voting surged forward Wednesday, then unexpectedly stalled.

The Democratic-controlled legislature in Maine, already the only place where the system is used for congressional contests, cleared legislation that would make the state the first where ranked-choice voting is used in presidential contests.

But the lawmakers ended their regular session late Wednesday night without completing the final, procedural and almost always pro forma steps necessary to deliver the bill to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, whose signature seems assured. As a result, the bill will remain in limbo until legislators return to Augusta, giving its Republican opponents time to mount a last-ditch effort to derail the measure .

A special session later this summer seems likely but is not guaranteed. So it's not clear whether the system will be in place in time to govern how Democratic convention delegates are allocated in March, when Maine is switching to primaries after a long run of presidential caucuses. If the bill becomes law, it would also apply to the awarding the state's four electoral votes in November.

"It represents an historic first," Rob Richie of FairVote, a prominent advocacy group for ranked-choice voting, said in anticipation of the measure's completion. "This is a tremendous victory for our democracy."

One reason the move would be so consequential is that Maine could then test the notion that RCV generally works against Republicans, a principal reason the idea is opposed by almost everyone in the GOP establishment.

To be sure, the system caused the defeat last year of a Republican congressman, Bruce Poliquin, who failed to secure an outright majority of No. 1 votes in the midterm election and then saw a lopsided share of the minor-party candidates' first-choice ballots redistributed to Democrat Jared Golden as the second choice.

But two years earlier, the reallocation of third-party votes could have had the opposite effect. Hillary Clinton carried the state with a 48 percent plurality, meaning the RCV rules would have been put in place. And her 22,000-vote margin over Donald Trump was less than the 38,100 votes won by the Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson, who polling showed took the bulk of his support away from Trump. So there is a reasonable shot that Trump could have carried the state if voters had been allowed to list him as their second choice after Johnson.

From now on, a similar result statewide or in either of the state's two House districts would trigger this sort of instant runoff. (Maine and Nebraska are the only states where one elector goes to the winner of each congressional district.)

Final action in Maine would be the biggest win so far for RCV advocates. Last week, a panel in New York City voted to create a referendum this fall in which the city will decide whether to use the system in primaries and special elections. At least five cities will use RCV for the first time this fall in Michigan, Minnesota, Utah and New Mexico – although the city council in Albuquerque, the state's largest city, rejected this concept this week.

Maine would become the sixth state where Democrats use RCV for all or part of their caucuses or primaries. None of them used the system for picking presidential nominees four years ago.

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Swing states build 2020 hacking protections: Will they hold?

With the presidency on the ballot in less than a year, fears of another attempt by Russia or other foreign powers to interfere in the election seem to grow with each passing day.

But in the battlegrounds where the outcome will be decided — the 13 states almost certain to be most hotly contested by both parties — election security has been tightening and the opportunities for a successful hacking of American democracy are being greatly reduced, a review of the procedures and equipment on course to be used in each state in November 2020 makes clear.

"There's been a huge amount of progress since 2016," says Elaine Kamarck, an election security expert at the Brookings Institution. James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, says his assessment of the fight against election interference results in feeling "confident that a lot has been done to make it better."

In fact, many who work on the issue now cite the public's perception that our election systems are vulnerable as a problem at least as great as the actual threat.

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The 13 states where election security matters most

Along with the candidates and the issues, the 2020 presidential election is also going to be about the voting process itself.

Russian efforts to hack into the voting systems of 2016 have boosted election security to a critical concern this time, prompting states to spend tens of millions buying new equipment, hiring cybersecurity wizards and installing software that warns of intrusions — among numerous other steps. More purchases of hardware, software and expertise are coming in the months ahead.

Whether enough money gets spent, and wisely, won't be known for sure until Nov. 3, 2020 — when the system will be subject to the one test that really matters. And whether the country decides the presidential election result is trustworthy will likely come down to how reliably things work in the relatively small number of states both nominees are contesting.

[Swing states build 2020 hacking protections: Will they hold?]

With 11 months to go, The Fulcrum reviewed information from state elections officials, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Election Assistance Commission and news reports to get a sense of the election security landscape. Here's the state of play in the 13 states likeliest to be presidential battlegrounds.

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"Money in our political system has completely eroded the promise of a functioning and just democracy," argues Wambui Gatheru.

For the young, getting big money out of politics is the cause of our time

Gatheru is the outreach manager at American Promise, which advocates for amending the Constitution to permit laws that regulate the raising and spending of campaign funds. She graduated two years ago from the University of Connecticut.

When young Americans come together, we can make a big impact. That's what we've seen throughout history. Alexander Hamilton and Betsy Ross were in their early 20s during the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass was 23 years old when he took the stage at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Alice Paul through her 20s led the fight for the 19th Amendment and women's voting rights.

And that's what we're seeing today in youth-led climate movements around the globe and the movement to end mass shootings here in the United States. But one issue that doesn't get as much attention sits at the root of our modern problems: big money in politics.

Money in our political system has completely eroded the promise of a functioning and just democracy. Due to a series of Supreme Court cases, corporations have the same rights as humans, special interests control Capitol Hill and democracy only works for those who can afford it. This is the dystopia my generation has inherited.

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Howard Dean and Barack Obama pioneered the drive for small-dollar contributors. Now, such donations have become an important measuring stick and may be contributing to increased polarization.

Small-dollar gifts hardly a cure-all for money’s smear on politics, one professor argues

The explosion of small-donor political contributions is often celebrated and extolled as one of the few positive developments amid all the problems facing the democracy reform movement.

Not so fast, argues New York University law school professor Richard Pildes. In a new essay published in the Yale Law Journal Forum, he argues the proliferation of modest contributions to candidates may be contributing to more political polarization and, at least, requires more careful examination.

Pildes also says the proposals to promote more small-donor giving that are part of the House Democrats' comprehensive political process overhaul, known as HR 1, could have unintended negative consequences.

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