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Maine high court clears way for ranked-choice voting in presidential contest

Carol Semple :: Press Herald


Maine’s highest court opened the door for the first-ever use of ranked-choice voting in a presidential election on Tuesday, ruling that opponents of the process had failed to collect enough signatures to trigger another statewide referendum.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court overturned a lower court ruling that would have blocked the use of ranked-choice voting in the presidential contest on Nov. 3. Instead, the state’s high court said the Maine Secretary of State’s Office was justified in invalidating roughly 1,000 petition signatures submitted by the Maine Republican Party for a “people’s veto” of the ranked-choice voting.

The court’s ruling on Tuesday is the latest blow to Republicans’ years-long effort to overturn or limit the use of a ranked-choice voting law. It also means Maine will be the first state to use the process in a presidential election, with potential implications for distribution of Maine’s four Electoral College votes in the tight contest between President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

“It’s a good day for democracy,” said David Farmer, spokesman for the Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting. “After having to fight for it for a long time . . . Maine voters are going to get what they want, which is the ability to rank the candidates for president. This is a critical election for the country and the state, and it is good news that this voting reform will be in place.”

It was unclear Tuesday whether Republican officials would appeal the decision with the election just six weeks away.

“We are disappointed in the decision and exploring further options for review by the federal courts to protect Maine voters’ rights to be heard,” Dr. Demi Kouzounas, chairwoman of the Maine Republican Party, said in a statement.

Maine residents have voted twice to use the ranked-choice process in most state and federal elections — during the initial ballot question in 2016 and then again in a June 2018 referendum reaffirming the law.

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn holds the door open for workers rolling a cart of blue ballot boxes into a counting room to start 2nd Congressional District ranked-choice voting tabulation in the Cross State Office Building in Augusta in July. A Maine high court ruling has cleared the way for a ranked-choice tabulation in the presidential election this fall. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Under the system , voters have the option of ranking candidates in their order of preference in races with three or more contenders. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent on the first tally, the candidate at the bottom is eliminated and their supporters’ votes are given to whoever those voters marked as their second choice. That process continues until one candidate wins the majority of the remaining vote pool.

In June 2018, Gov. Janet Mills emerged as the winner of a ranked-choice tabulation in the seven-person Democratic primary for governor. Five months later, Democratic challenger Jared Golden surged past incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin to win the 2nd Congressional District seat following a ranked-choice runoff.

This November, Maine voters will have their choice of five presidential candidates: Trump, Biden, Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins, Libertarian Party candidate Jo Jorgensen and the Alliance Party’s Rocky De La Fuente.

Recent polls show Biden with a sizable lead over Trump statewide. But Maine is one of only two states that can split its Electoral College votes between candidates rather than using a winner-take-all system.

The Trump campaign has been hoping for at least a repeat performance of 2016 when he picked up one elector by winning Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. But with five candidates in a ranked-choice election, the math could become even more challenging for Trump.

Ranked-choice voting could also be a factor in Maine’s closely watched U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins, Democrat Sara Gideon and independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn.

Leaders of the Maine Republican Party staunchly oppose ranked-choice voting but have, to date, failed to overturn the law either at the ballot box or in the courts despite repeated attempts.

The current push aimed to limit the use of ranked-choice voting by asking voters if they wanted to overturn the 2019 state law allowing the process during presidential contests.

As of mid-August, the Maine Republican Party committee dedicated to reining in the law had spent $526,537 on the “people’s veto” campaign.

But the referendum drive was derailed when Secretary of State Matt Dunlap disqualified more than 1,000 petition signatures on procedural and legal grounds, most notably that some signature collectors were not registered to vote in their town of residence. Dunlap’s decision left petitioners short of the 63,067 signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot.

The case before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court focused on whether the state’s requirement that signature gatherers be registered voters in the town where they live infringes on their free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution.

In their ruling Tuesday, the Supreme Court justices said Maine’s constitution was “unambiguous” when it clearly stated that petition circulators be registered to vote wherever they live. On the First Amendment issue, the court noted that “there is no litmus test for determining whether an election regulation imposes an impermissible burden on free speech.”

The justices said that the limited record provided to the court in this quick-turnaround case does not suggest that it is a “severe” infringement of free speech rights to requiring a petition circulator to register in their hometown. In fact, 98 percent of those collecting signature were properly registered and the individuals at the center of the legal dispute did register, albeit after collecting signatures.

“Thus, although the effect of the signature collectors’ failure to timely register in their new municipalities of residence may be severe in this case, we cannot say that the burden of the registration requirement on the exercise of petition supporters’ First Amendment rights is severe either as applied in this case or more broadly in Maine,” the court ruled.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap had already ordered ranked-choice ballots printed for the presidential race even before Tuesday’s ruling because federal law requires states to send ballots to military members and overseas voters well in advance of an election.

Dunlap said in a statement that the ruling “comes as a great relief and avoids the complications, confusion and expense that would have arisen from reprinting and reissuing ballots.”

“The certification process is a painstaking, yet expedited process to ensure that any initiative or people’s veto that comes forward as a ballot question before the voters of Maine appears there with the legitimacy afforded by having met all requirements of the Maine Constitution,” Dunlap said in a statement. “Our work in the certification of any initiated effort of the people is entirely to achieve that assurance regardless of the political discourse around the matter at hand.”

Republicans had also challenged the constitutionality of Maine’s ranked-choice voting law in federal court. But U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker, who had also considered previous Republican-backed legal challenges of the law, ruled there were no constitutional conflicts.

Farmer, spokesman for the the Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting, said Maine voters clearly support the law and its application to presidential races.

“Opponents of ranked-choice voting have tried every available avenue to take this voting reform away from Maine people and they have come up short,” Farmer said. “The federal courts have rejected their claims, the state courts have rejected their claims and the voters have repeatedly rejected their claims.”

“This is a victory for every Mainer who sat around kitchen tables and in basements years ago, wondering how we could ensure more votes would be heard in our elections,” Anna Kellar, executive director for The League of Women Voters of Maine, said in a statement. “It is a victory for the voters who showed up, year after year, affirming ‘yes, this is the reform we want for our state.'”

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