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Ranked-Choice Voting Supporters Seek Constitutional Amendment

Mal Leary
Maine Public/file
Former state Sen. Dick Woodbury formally submits ranked choice voting petition signatures to the Secretary of State's office in October of 2015.

The Maine Supreme Court has issued an advisory opinion Tuesday that the state’s new ranked-choice voting law conflicts with the state constitution. Debate is now growing over what happens next.

In a 51-page opinion, the justices unanimously advised the Legislature that the ranked-choice voting law approved by voters last fall conflicts with the state constitution. The justices say the constitution clearly says that an election for the Legislature or for governor is won by the candidate that gets the plurality of the votes in that contest.

Under ranked-choice voting, the final winner would eventually have to get at least half the vote. The court says the conflict can be resolved by rewording the constitution, but that would take the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature and the voters.

Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau says he doesn’t see that happening.

“Political reality, I doubt very much that there are the votes to pass a constitutional amendment, we all know that threshold is two-thirds,” he says.

But Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon, a supporter of ranked-choice voting, says she isn’t so sure that the votes are out of reach.

“I don’t know how he has counted votes yet on this,” she says. “But I think the first thing we will probably look at is there an option to send that constitutional amendment out.”

Gideon says lawmakers must address the issue of the court’s opinion before another election cycle gets underway.

Complicating the issue is that the law passed by the voters applies to federal offices, so unless the state constitution is changed, Maine could have two voting systems in place for the next major election: one for state candidates and one for federal candidates.

Thibodeau says lawmakers can’t let that happen.

“We can’t have, you know, folks going to the polls and voting in one regard for state offices and another regard for federal offices,” he says. “That would be too confusing.”

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap says running two different election systems at the same time will be expensive and cumbersome.

“We have estimated around $1.5 million to implement ranked-choice voting, but we still would have to run the traditional election, which is not without cost,” he says.

Dunlap says that amounts to another several hundred thousand dollars.

But supporters of the initiated law say the voters have spoken and that ranked-choice voting for all Maine elections must be implemented.

“We should proceed ahead with federal elections the way that the people suggested that they would like to see elections be conducted, and go start the process of making so it could happen for state elections so that all of our elections are that way,” says former independent state Sen. Dick Woodbury, who has been one of the leaders of the ranked-choice effort.

And Kyle Bailey, who served as campaign manager for the effort, says lawmakers will be held accountable if they ignore the wishes of the people.

“Nearly 400,000 Mainers voted yes on Question 5, the second largest referendum vote in the history of our state,” he says. “We are going to hold our legislators accountable. We expect them to listen to the voices of Maine people and implement this law.”

Legislative leaders must approve any new measures for consideration this late in the session, and Gideon hopes there will be the votes to put forth a constitutional amendment. But she and other legislative supporters acknowledge that if it fails to get enough votes they will have to consider all options.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.