Maine Supreme Court affirms ranked choice for June primaries

ELLSWORTH — The Maine Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that ranked choice voting (RCV) should be used in the June 12 primaries, issuing a key decision in a series of challenges to the new voting rules.

At issue in the case was whether Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has the statutory ability to implement RCV according to Maine law.

The Maine Senate had challenged RCV, in part, on the grounds that Dunlap lacked constitutional authority to spend public money on RCV implementation.

This was only the latest hurdle RCV proponents had to overcome.

In late March, Dunlap told lawmakers about an apparent problem in the state election laws unearthed by a legislative aide. Dunlap pointed to a law that called for primaries to be decided by “plurality,” while RCV requires a majority.

Dunlap said in multiple interviews before that announcement that his office intended to move forward with RCV. After the discovery of that legal hang-up, members of his staff reiterated their intention to implement the new voting structure, but said they wanted clarity on legal questions.

Seeking a judgment on the case, RCV supporters went to court. Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy ruled that there would be “irreparable harm” if RCV wasn’t implemented in this year’s primaries.

On the same day as Murphy’s ruling, the Maine Senate voted to file a complaint against Dunlap with the state’s Supreme Court. Its goal, according to legal filings, was to halt the implementation of RCV.

Ultimately, the justices wrote in their decision, they were not deciding on “the wisdom of ranked choice voting.” They were attempting to answer whether the prior election law, which calls for a plurality, is “repealed by implication” by the 2016 RCV law.

“The consistent and explicit purpose of the citizens’ initiative and the people’s veto has been to transition Maine elections to a system of ranked choice voting,” justices wrote in their decision, referring to the civilian efforts to both put RCV in place and reaffirm its existence after the Legislature delayed implementation to 2021.

“We conclude that the ‘plurality’ provision of [the older Maine election law] has been implicitly repealed by the most recent provision of law addressing the ranked choice voting method to be employed in the June primary elections.”

The decision only focuses on the June 2018 primaries and makes no decisions about any potential future uses of RCV, according to the court’s legal filing.

For RCV supporters, the decision was an affirmation of their work since 2015.

“The Maine Legislature has changed or repealed all four of the initiatives passed by Maine voters in 2016,” said Kyle Bailey, the campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, in a press release. “Today’s decision by the Maine Supreme Court confirms that the Maine people are sovereign and have the final say.”

Cara Brown McCormick, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting’s treasurer, issued a statement saying the advocacy group would return to focusing its efforts on building support for the question on June’s ballot of whether to repeal the Legislature’s RCV delay bill.

That bill was enacted last fall and became the focus of a successful people’s veto campaign. Voters will decide in June whether RCV should be delayed until 2021 — at which point it could also be repealed.

“Ranked choice voting gives voters more voice and more power in our democracy,” McCormick said. “It is simple and fair. Today, the committee and its thousands of volunteers, rededicate our efforts to supporting a ‘Yes’ vote on Question 1 to protect ranked choice voting and honor the will of the people.”

Senate President Michael Thibodeau (R-Waldo County) released a statement saying he appreciated the clarity on legal issues. He said the Legislature would have to find a way to support the RCV implementation for June.

“I would like to thank the justices for providing clarity on some of the questions the Maine Senate raised regarding ranked choice voting. Based on the ruling, it is clear that ranked choice voting will be used for the June 12th primary,” Thibodeau said.

“It is also important to note, however, that the court’s ruling was very narrow in scope and only applies to the June primary … From the beginning, our primary concern has been the integrity of Maine’s voting system, and we remain concerned about the citizens of Maine having confidence in it. In the short amount of time we have left in the legislative session, we will consider what we can do to ensure the election process goes smoothly on June 12th.”

Jack Dodson
Jack Dodson began working for The Ellsworth American in mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.

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