Attorneys representing Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and supporters and opponents of ranked-choice voting were grilled by Maine Supreme Court justices Tuesday in a case that could decide whether ranked-choice voting applies to the presidential election in Maine this fall.
Maine’s secretary of state is appealing a Superior Court ruling that a person circulating petitions for a ballot initiative does not have to be a registered voter while they are collecting signatures, only when they turn them in. The lower court’s decision meant that ranked-choice voting for president would be on hold until voters decide the issue at referendum.
Attorney Patrick Strawbridge argued the Superior Court was correct and voters should decide the question at the polls.
“At stake in this case is the fundamental right of the people of Maine to exercise their reserved power to enact or veto laws. This spring the people of Maine took extraordinary steps to exercise that right,” he said.
Strawbridge said the pandemic made it difficult to collect signatures. But Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardener, representing the secretary of state, argued that circulators were clearly familiar with the law.
“The circulators were on notice at the beginning of this petition drive of the requirement using the instructions given them. It’s a very simple requirement as some of your honors have noted,” she said.
The justices also inquired about a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Colorado law limiting who can circulate petitions. Acting Supreme Court Chief Justice Andrew Mead said such limitations run counter to the First Amendment.
“That provision disenfranchises a group of people, eligible voters who have not registered. They no longer have the prerogative of that core political speech which is involved in circulating petitions. Is that not a severe burden on a significance portions of the populace or I should say the electorate?” he said.
Questions posed by justices do not necessarily indicate what they think of a legal argument and are often used to seek clarity.
The court has several options from upholding the lower court’s ruling to reversing it and even sending the case back to Superior Court for further hearings.
Justice Mead did say the court will expedite its consideration of the case but set no deadline for a decision. The secretary of state is required by federal law to have ballots available for military and overseas voters by Saturday.