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Mainers To Test Ranked-Choice Voting While Deciding Whether To Keep It

Tom Porter
Maine Public File
A worker gathers signatures for a petition in June 2015.

The people's veto campaign to overturn a law that would eventually repeal Maine's landmark ranked-choice voting system has qualified for the June ballot.

The secretary of state says the people's veto campaign gathered more than 66,000 signatures; just over 61,000 were needed to get the measure on the ballot.

That means that, barring any future legal challenges, voters participating in this June's primary elections will test the ranked-choice voting system at the same time they're deciding whether they want to continue using it for some contests.

It also means election officials will have to rush to implement ranked choice for a gubernatorial primary that could have nearly two-dozen candidates, as well as the congressional primaries.

In 2016, voters approved the system for all legislative, gubernatorial and congressional elections. But last year Maine's Supreme Judicial Court said the system was unconstitutional for certain general election races, including gubernatorial contests.

Ranked-choice supporters pushed for a constitutional amendment, but it never advanced in the Legislature. Instead, lawmakers passed a bill last year that repeals the voter-approved system in 2021 if the state constitution isn't amended before then.

The people's veto specifically targets that proposal. If voters ratify the people's veto, it means that ranked-choice voting will remain in place for primary contests and general elections for congressional races, but not general elections for governor or the state Legislature.

Some lawmakers say using two different voting systems could confuse some voters, a problem ranked-choice supporters say could be solved if the lawmakers send a constitutional amendment to voters.

The ranked-choice system is used by several municipalities nationwide, including the city of Portland. Under the system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote after the first tally, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, but voters who chose the eliminated candidate have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidates. The ballots are then recounted.

The process continues until one candidate emerges with more than 50 percent of the vote.

Supporters of the system say it empowers candidates willing to compromise and discourages excessively negative campaigning because candidates have to appeal to a wider spectrum of voters, not just their base of support.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap's office has estimated that it will cost roughly $1.5 million to implement ranked-choice voting in Maine. He's also called for the Legislature to fund implementation, but lawmakers have yet to do so.

Dunlap additionally has certified the citizens’ initiative effort that would establish a new tax to support home care services in the state.

The secretary of state’s office says proponents of the legislation submitted slightly fewer than 65,000 valid signatures — the minimum is just over 61,000.

The Maine Legislature will now consider the initiative, and can choose to enact the bill as written or to send it forward to a statewide vote on the November ballot.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.
Nora is originally from the Boston area but has lived in Chicago, Michigan, New York City and at the northern tip of New York state. Nora began working in public radio at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor and has been an on-air host, a reporter, a digital editor, a producer, and, when they let her, played records.