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Maine Supreme Court Asked To Weigh In On Use Of Ranked-Choice Voting For Primaries

Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Judge Michaela Murphy makes her recommendation at the Kennebec Superior Court facility in Augusta

There’s a new development in the saga over Maine’s landmark ranked-choice voting law: Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy is recommending that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court review whether state election officials have the authority to implement the voting system for the June primary elections.

Murphy’s decision effectively puts that question to the same seven judges who last year determined that key parts of the law are unconstitutional.

In response, Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley has asked the parties in the case to submit arguments by noon Thursday for a 2 p.m. hearing.

“Time is of the essence,” she said.

Murphy’s recommendation follows her ruling last week that the state should go forward with implementing ranked-choice voting in the June primary. But at the same time as that ruling, Murphy also indicated that issues raised in a separate injunction by Maine Senate Republicans are serious enough to be considered by the state’s highest court.

Her decision Wednesday to recommend those questions to the law court effectively certifies those concerns. It also boomerangs the dispute over ranked choice back to the same justices who touched off a year of legal and political wrangling that clouded the law’s future.

Murphy said she hopes the high court will act quickly.

“I know you all share the court’s view that we all owe the people of Maine as much certainty as we can provide as they go to the polls on June 12,” she said.

The Supreme Court will be asked to address seven questions raised by attorneys representing Senate Republicans.

Credit Steve Mistler / Maine Public
Maine Public
Attorney Tim Woodcock, who represents Senate Republicans in the case, takes questions after Superior Judge Michaela Murphy recommended the Maine Supreme Judicial Court resolve whether state elections officials can legally implement ranked choice voting.

Attorney Tim Woodcock, who is representing the Senate GOP, said most deal with separation of powers between the Legislature and the secretary of state. And those issues, he argues, give the Senate standing to claim damages in court.

“We would argue that we have (standing) because there’s an invasion of the powers of the Legislature in appropriation and statutory process,” Woodcock said.

By appropriations, Woodcock means the secretary of state’s ability to spend money to implement the law. The Legislature has never granted election officials authority to do that, so Woodcock said it’s not allowed.

And the Senate Republicans are also challenging election officials’ authority to perform certain tasks if an election is held, such as collecting ballots from Maine’s nearly 500 municipalities in the event that ranked choice’s runoff tabulation is needed to declare a majority winner.

But attorney James Moneteleone, representing ranked-choice voting advocates, said Senate Republicans don’t have standing to claim damages.

“We believe that a single chamber in a bicameral legislative body does not have standing to brings claims related to the balance of powers,” he said. “And I think the case law would indicate that’s a position that’s been held elsewhere.”

It will now be up to Maine Supreme Court to decide that question and determine whether the state should continue implementation of ranked-choice voting. But the court could also decide to kick the issue back to Superior Court.

Either way, attorney Woodcock is hopeful that the high court will move quickly in a case that’s unfolding at what seems like an unprecedented speed.

“I have never seen timing on this accelerated schedule in my entire professional career. And I never expect to see it again,” he said.

Meanwhile, state election officials are continuing plans for a ranked-choice voting election, the first of its kind in the country.

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