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Judge Rules Ranked-Choice Voting Should Be Implemented for June Primaries

A Superior Court judge has ruled that state election officials should continue implementing Maine's landmark ranked-choice voting law for the June primary elections. The ruling, by Kennebec Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy, is a victory for supporters of the voting system, who have been battling with lawmakers in the courts and in the Legislature ever since voters approved ranked-choice nearly two years ago. But the legal battle is far from over.

The conclusion of Judge Murphy's 14-page ruling appeared to leave little doubt that ranked choice voting will be in place when voters go to the polls on June 12.

She wrote, "The uncertainty that halting the ranked-choice voting implementation process at this late date would cause is significant. Clarity, stability and public confidence are essential to ensure the legitimacy of Maine elections."

So, case closed, right?

"We have never delegated to the secretary of state the power to set up a whole new election system out of whole cloth," said Republican state Sen. Roger Katz.

Katz and his Republican colleagues continue to maintain that the secretary of state can't legally implement the ranked-choice system.

They made that argument earlier this week, before voting, largely along party lines, to approve an order that effectively authorizes the Senate president to legally challenge the sSecretary of state's ability to hold a ranked-choice election.

And on Tuesday, the Senate's attorneys turned around and did just that - filing an injunction against the secretary of state in Kennebec Superior Court.

Katz says Senate Republicans feel strongly that, despite winning the support of the voters, ranked-choice is fundamentally flawed. 

"People have voted that they want to have ranked-choice voting. They did not vote for a system that is, as proposed, unconstitutional and raises serious questions about the integrity of our ballots and the integrity of the whole system," he said.

Senate Republicans have presented an array of claims to the court, ranging from the secretary of state's ability to spend money implementing the system to the process of collecting ballots.

And Judge Murphy appeared to take their arguments seriously. In responding to their injunction request, she wrote that claims warrant an expedited review by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

That portion of Murphy's response buoyed Republicans, but Democrats see her ruling as a victory.

"I think ranked-choice voting is going to go forward in the primaries on June 12," says Democratic state Sen. Mike Carpenter, a former Maine Attorney General.

Carpenter says he didn't support ranked-choice voting at the polls, but he believes lawmakers should work to put the law in place - not block it.

And he also doesn't believe that Senate Republicans' legal complaint stands much of a chance to derail ranked-choice implementation.

"I think that the allegations made in the lawsuit filed now by Republicans - on behalf of the  Maine Senate - I think those allegations are somewhat spurious," Carpenter says.

Carpenter says many of the GOP objections are not explicitly prohibited in Maine law. He also questions whether the court will grant the Senate legal standing.

But most importantly, he points to Judge Murphy's initial ruling - that halting implementation will sow confusion and doubt on the primary elections.

Carpenter can't envision the Maine Supreme Judicial Court disagreeing with Murphy's assessment, much less ruling against it.

Nonetheless, Carpenter and Senate Democrats have introduced a Senate order that he says puts the GOP in a position to remedy for themselves some of the same issues they want the court to address.

But if past actions foreshadow future ones, Republicans will defeat Carpenter's order - and the legal wrangling over ranked choice will continue.

Update: Proposal to Amend Ranked-Choice Voting Issues Dies in State Senate

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.