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Ranked-Choice Voting To Be Implemented For June Primaries, But Political Struggles Continue

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap addresses reporters the day after the law court issued an opinion that allows election officials to implement a landmark ranked-choice voting law

The Maine Supreme Court has appeared to clear the way for a first of its kind election. The court Tuesday removed the final roadblock to implementing ranked-choice voting for the June primaries. Ranked-choice advocates say the court's opinion will preempt the kind of legal challenges that have followed the law ever since voters enacted it nearly two years ago. But others warn that additional litigation looms.

The opinion by the law court seemed to bring clarity to a confusing series of contentious legal and political maneuvers taken by supporters and opponents of ranked-choice voting, a system that's designed to take some of the contentiousness out of politics.

In essence, the court says ranked-choice voting is effectively the law of the land, and that it supersedes older laws that some thought would prevent state election officials from using it for the June primaries.

A Superior Court Judge had ruled as much two weeks ago. But then the Republican-led state Senate filed another injunction that challenged the Secretary of State's authority to implement the election system.

The justices made it crystal clear in its unanimous opinion Tuesday: The judicial branch will not get involved in a political squabble brought by one-half of one-half of the Legislature.

"They said, 'unless you can present a true constitutional issue, or statutory issue, we're not weighing in on your sibling rivalry,'" said James Monteleone, an attorney representing the Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting, the same group that convinced nearly 400,000 Maine voters to support the election overhaul in 2016.

Monteleone says the law court opinion is decisive and that it effectively closes off future legal challenges that could prevent the ranked-choice system from its highly anticipated debut in the June primaries.

Several Republican gubernatorial candidates have said they might challenge the law after the June primary.

But Monteleone believes the court's opinion will also limit that kind of litigation, as well.

"They made it expressly clear that this is the method of election for the June 12 primary," Monteleone said.

Republican Sen. Roger Katz, of Augusta said "there are a number of potential legal concerns with ranked-choice voting."

Katz was among the Senate Republicans who backed the effort that challenged the Secretary of State's authority to implement the law. Katz, an attorney, says Senate Republicans respect the law court's decision and that his colleagues will no longer pursue litigation to halt ranked-choice.

But he says others may look to courts after the June primary.

"Disgruntled candidates may have problems that they raise. Other people may. It's hard to predict that," he said.

But Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who was sued by the Senate Republicans in the case now settled by the law court, says his office can't fret over future litigation.

His office faces a more daunting task: setting up the ranked-choice system and making sure voters know how to use it.

"If I worried about legal challenges I would probably be curled up in a corner somewhere. We've had so many of them," he said.

Dunlap is also working to assure critics of the system that upcoming ranked-choice election process goes smoothly. That includes the process of collecting ballots from nearly 500 municipalities if a race moves into the runoff tabulation phase.

The state police typically collect ballots in the event of a recount, but they've indicated that they won't do that with ranked-choice. Republicans say they plan to introduce a new bill to make the police gather ballots.

But even if that proposal fails, a distinct possibility given some lawmakers' aversion to doing anything that would make a ranked-choice election go smoothly, Dunlap says his office has safeguards in place to make sure ballots are tracked and secure.

"That will not change. There are not going to be ballot boxes rattling around in the back of a Subaru or a pickup truck," he said. This quip about is a reference to the images conjured by Republicans as they presented their legal challenge last week.

And that kind of rhetoric isn't likely to fade away as the political knife-fight over ranked-choice voting continues.

Kate Knox, an attorney representing the ranked-choice advocates, says not only will Mainers be testing ranked-choice for the first time in June, they'll also be voting on a people's veto that could determine if the system is here to stay.

"We have another big lift, which is to win this campaign in June, make sure voters understand that if they want ranked-choice voting, if they want to use it and they think it's a good process, then they need to vote yes on the people's veto," she said.

Knox says the campaign will be tough. But she also thinks all of the efforts to thwart the law could end up helping more than they hurt.

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