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Maine secretary of state again rules GOP failed in bid to nix ranked-choice voting law

Caitlin Andrews :: Bangor Daily News
The decision still requires the court’s approval....



Secretary of State Matt Dunlap oversees the recounting of ballots in Augusta in this Dec. 6, 2018, file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — An effort to repeal the use of ranked-choice voting in Maine presidential elections still does not have enough signatures to make the November ballot, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap ruled in a decision that would ensure the method’s use in this election.

Dunlap determined the Maine Republican Party-led effort only clawed back an additional 79 signatures after a Cumberland County Superior Court judge ordered him to review the signatures, according to a Wednesday decision. That put the total collected valid signatures at 61,292, less than 2,000 short of the threshold needed to make the ballot.

The decision is subject to the court’s approval. Time is short because ballots need to be printed in the next two weeks. Had the referendum gathered enough signatures, it would have blocked the voting method’s use in the election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden and put a question to repeal the law on the ballot alongside them.

The ruling came just before what would have otherwise been a victory for Republicans in the courts. A panel of five justices on Maine’s high court ruled Thursday that opponents of the law launched their people’s veto effort to repeal the law at the proper time under the Maine Constitution.

Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said he would have been “naive” to expect Dunlap to reverse his ruling, citing his Democratic affiliation.

“We are fighting for valid signatures that never should have been discounted,” he said.

Almost 11,300 signatures remained invalid, with roughly a third being discounted because they were not certified by the registrar as belonging to a registered voter within a municipality, according to Dunlap’s office. Republicans argued the state made tabulation errors and made improper claims of material alterations that account for hundreds of signatures they deem valid. Dunlap agreed with the former reason, resulting in the additional 79 signatures.

But Dunlap dismissed other claims, including one instance in which the Maine GOP tried to deliver additional petitions after the June 15 deadline. Savage said a secretary of state employee told him on the day the petitions were due — the first time an attempt was made to submit the additional petitions — to keep them in case they needed more valid signatures.

The employee disputed that, saying she advised Savage to keep any late petitions he received in case he wished to argue that he had the right to submit them. Petitioners “made no such argument but simply attempted to deliver the petitions to our office” on Aug. 5, Dunlap wrote.

Savage said Thursday he was not involved in the legal reasoning around attempting to submit the petitions past the deadline, but said any efforts were made in “good faith.”

Supporters of the method challenged the GOP signature-gathering effort this year, arguing the veto process does not apply to laws already in effect. The Democratic-led Maine Legislature passed a law in July 2019 expanding ranked-choice voting to include presidential elections, but Gov. Janet Mills declined to sign the law, instead allowing it to take effect without her signature when the Legislature returned in January to keep it from affecting the March presidential primaries.

Justices disagreed with the advocates for the law, ruling it would not have gone into effect until June 15 this year due to the timing of its passage. They were also skeptical that an early challenge to a law going into effect would violate the constitution or burden state officials.

The Republican effort would bring Maine’s third referendum on ranked-choice voting in four years. Republicans have led the resistance to the method.

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