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Maine Supreme Court Decision Clears Way For Ranked-Choice Voting In This Fall's Presidential Race

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
Ballots are prepared to be tabulated for Maine's 2nd Congressional District's House election Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Augusta, Maine.

The Maine Supreme Court has determined that a people’s veto effort led by the Maine Republican Party failed to get enough qualified signatures to put a referendum on ranked-choice voting on the November ballot. The decision clears the way for the nation’s first use of ranked-choice voting in a presidential election.

The court found that state law requires petition circulators to be registered voters in their city or town in order to collect signatures. The law court’s ruling upheld an earlier decision by Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to disqualify more than 1,000 people’s veto petition signatures for legal or procedural reasons. Supporters of the people’s veto effort had argued that they only needed to be registered at the time they submitted the signatures.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap praised the decision.

“If you did not require somebody to be a registered voter when they are circulating that would bring in, at least theoretically, the waves of out-of-state circulating companies,” he said.

Dunlap said collecting petition signatures has become a big business in states that allow anyone to collect signatures for ballot questions, and many states have had problems with professional circulators. He said the decision is a relief.

If the court had ruled against the secretary of state’s office, it would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to print new ballots. Dunlap said the state is ready to implement ranked-choice voting for president this election.

“Depending on what happens Nov. 3, we could have a lot of attention paid to the state of Maine in the weeks that follow,” he said.

That’s because while polls show Democrat Joe Biden with sizable leads both statewide and in the 1st Congressional District, he and Trump are virtually tied in the polls in the 2nd Congressional District, and there are three other candidates on the presidential ballot.

Anna Kellar, executive director of the Maine League of Women Voters, applauded the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“That will mean that those third-party candidates won’t have the impact potentially of being a spoiler if Maine’s election is close or if the election in the 2nd Congressional District is close,” she says.

Historically, the non-major-party candidates have only received a percent or two of the vote, so it is possible neither Trump nor Biden will get an absolute majority in the 2nd District, triggering the use of a ranked-choice runoff for an electoral vote for the first time in U.S. history.

That may well be why the Maine GOP issued a statement after the law court’s ruling that they are reviewing the decision and may take further legal action in federal court.

David Farmer, a spokesperson for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, said his group is ready for a legal battle.

“The committee will stand with the voters of Maine and we will defend ranked-choice voting as long and as far as we have to,” he said.

Republicans have several avenues to pursue in federal court, including another lawsuit. They could also ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the matter, although that’s considered a long shot.

Peter Brann, a Lewiston attorney who represented U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in the 2018 federal court decision upholding the use ranked-choice voting in Golden’s election in Maine’s 2nd District, said he doubts any action brought in federal court will be successful.

“They could go to court. It’s been done now repeatedly in regard to ranked-choice voting with the same result every time. Ranked-choice voting has been upheld against any and all federal constitutional challenges,” he said.

Brann said time is quickly running out for another case this election, but he says based on the amount of litigation ranked-choice voting has generated, the trend could continue in future election years.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.
Ed is a Maine native who spent his early childhood in Livermore Falls before moving to Farmington. He graduated from Mount Blue High School in 1970 before going to the University of Maine at Orono where he received his BA in speech in 1974 with a broadcast concentration. It was during that time that he first became involved with public broadcasting. He served as an intern for what was then called MPBN TV and also did volunteer work for MPBN Radio.