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Ranked Choice Voting: How Did We Get Here?

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It was a chaotic week for those attempting to follow developments of Maine's ranked-choice voting law. And it's still unclear how all of this is going to shake out.

Political correspondent Steve Mistler joined Nora Flaherty on Maine Things Considered to get us up to date and tell us how we got here.

NF: Steve, earlier this week a superior court judge ruled that state election officials have to continue implementing the ranked choice system for June primaries. But it sounds like Republicans in the legislature are challenging that ruling. Can you explain what happened and what we should be expecting?

SM: Yeah, I'll try. So basically Superior Court Judge McKayla Murphy issued the ruling saying that the secretary of state must implement the ranked choice voting system. But on that very same day she responded to a separate injunction filed by Republicans in the Maine Senate who basically argue that the secretary of state doesn't have the authority to implement the law. So here's the central tension that the court and possibly the main Supreme Court has to settle. So on one hand, Judge Murphy ruled that the state has to set up this system because time is running out before the June primary, and not setting it up will basically sow confusion and doubt among voters. On the other hand, she says Republicans have raised some very serious concerns that may be best handled by the Maine Supreme Court.

Those two moves by Judge Murphy really seem at odds with one another, but there are some key things to consider. First we don't know if Judge Murphy or the Supreme Court will grant the Senate Republican standing. The Senate GOP may not even be able to have its complaint considered by the court, and there are a lot of reasons why that may not happen. First of all Senate Republicans are largely acting alone here, it's not like the full legislature is trying to intervene here and demonstrating damages or harm that could happen as a result of the election. It's basically one half of one half of the legislature. Now setting aside the standing issue, there's also the very strong statement that Judge Murphy made in her ruling that the state has to implement the system unless or otherwise it's going to sow a lot of confusion. So if the Supreme Court is going to take this up and potentially rule on the Republicans complaint it would almost have to supersede her ruling. And I don't know what the precedent for that is, but it would seem to be rare at least to me.

NF: OK so all of this could be decided in the courts maybe now maybe after the primaries if the court doesn't take up the Republican injunction is that what's going to happen?

SM: Right, so if the Court doesn't grant Senate Republicans standing, then Murphy's original order to implement the law would basically stand, unless of course someone else petitions the court, which is entirely possible at this point, I wouldn't rule anything out. The other scenario is that ranked-choice voting is used in the June primary and one of the losing candidates challenges the results. That too could end up in court.

NF: It looks often, I think especially given the court challenge coming from the Senate Republicans, that it's Republicans who want to block ranked choice voting. Why is that? Is that true, and are Democrats actually behind this?

SM: All right, so I think Republicans are more vocal about opposing ranked-choice. Democrats say they support it, and they've been really vocal about you know criticizing Republicans for blocking implementation and everything else. But I don't know that that support among Democrats is unanimous. I mean look there have been many ranked-choice voting proposals that have never made it out of the legislature. It wasn't just Republicans who opposed the system. Democrats were in power in some cases and also opposed it. That's why we got ranked-choice, it was done through a ballot initiative because neither party wanted to implement it or to pass a law that would implement it. And now there are a couple of reasons for this. I think one of them is that it's new, it's a completely different way of running a campaign and both of the major political parties have had a lot of success running under the current system, and lately you could argue, and this might explain why Republicans are more out front perhaps in opposing it, they've had more success recently and statewide races, especially in races where there are more than two candidates and where an independent could split the left leaning vote. That's what happened in 2010 and helped Governor Paul LePage get elected. Well that dynamic isn't supposed to be in play in ranked-choice voting because of how it works. And I suspect that that's why Democrats are coming around and maybe supporting it because they don't want to see that vote splitting scenario play out in future statewide races.

NF: OK well I guess we'll see where this goes next week. Thanks a lot Steve.

SM: Thanks Nora.

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.