ELLSWORTH — A superior court judge ruled Tuesday that ranked choice voting (RCV) should continue as planned for the June primaries.
Her ruling followed a court battle that began late last week.
Just as state officials were ready to implement RCV, a new wrinkle announced by Secretary of State Matt Dunlap last Thursday cast doubt on whether the voting system could be used in June’s primaries.
The next day, Dunlap was in court.
The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting — along with various proponents, some of whom are candidates for office this year — immediately sought a court order that would require Dunlap to carry out the will of Maine’s voters.
In their complaint, they cited the 2016 vote establishing RCV and this past winter’s “people’s veto” effort to keep ranked choice in effect.
The judge agreed with their assessment. In her
ruling, Judge Michaela Murphy found “irreparable harm” would result if the June primaries weren’t carried out implementing RCV. She based this on the successful 2016 referendum campaign and the people’s veto upholding RCV.
Dunlap had told The Ellsworth American in multiple interviews he intends to carry out RCV as long as it is the law. On Friday morning, his spokeswoman, Kristen Muszynski, had said their office still intended to put the voting system in place, despite legal questions.
At issue was language in Maine’s election law. The RCV voting system’s entire formula is built around one candidate getting at least 50 percent of the vote. First choices are tallied, and then second, third and lower-ranked choices are added in. This process is repeated until one candidate gains the majority.
A legislative aide found that Maine’s election laws call for a plurality in primaries — meaning the winner would be the person who gets the most votes outright. This raises questions about whether RCV — which stipulates a majority winner — can actually be implemented in June.
In their court order, RCV supporters said they felt the underlying election law was “repealed by implication” when Maine voters approved the new voting system in 2016.
That’s because RCV called explicitly for primaries to be decided by majority.
On Monday, the Maine Senate voted by 21-13 to give Senate President Mike Thibodeau the ability to challenge any implementation of RCV for June’s primary.
Last Friday, Muszynski said Dunlap and his staff were preparing for committee hearings on Thursday when it was brought to his attention by a legislative aide that RCV law actually stipulated that primary elections be determined by plurality instead of majority.
Attorney General Janet Mills, who is running for Governor this year, put out an immediate statement saying she was made aware of the issue for the first time on Thursday.
“The more than 62,000 citizens who signed the people’s veto petitions deserve to have their voices heard,” Mills said in a statement. “The will of the people must not be thwarted by some technicality in the law. I will file legislation today to be presented to the Legislative Council to ensure that ranked choice voting is in full effect for this June’s primary as the people have dictated.
“I call on the Legislative Council to meet in an emergency session to address this urgent issue.”
On Friday morning, officials said they couldn’t easily answer questions about how this issue was missed in the 18 months since RCV was approved.
State Rep. Louie Luchini (D-Ellsworth) said he thought the problem went back to the fact that the law drafted by RCV supporters in 2016 was “really poorly written.”
The original law didn’t make enough rules, he said, and forced Dunlap’s staff to navigate legal gray areas.
“It just creates a lot of these problems and conflicts with the law, which makes it difficult for us as legislators,” Luchini said.
According to Luchini, who co-chairs the committee that deals with election law, Dunlap told legislators that his office was still trying to implement RCV despite this development.
“We’ve been going full steam ahead,” Muszynski said Friday morning. “The secretary was understanding that that’s what we were charged with.”
The legal concern was cited one day after Dunlap’s staff released a set of rules governing the implementation of RCV in June. He was originally supposed to be meeting legislators on Thursday to discuss those rules, but it became a question-and-answer session after the issue was announced.