RCV ball back in Legislature’s court

ELLSWORTH — Three and a half months ago, Maine legislators passed a bill that provoked instant pushback from ranked choice voting (RCV) supporters. The result was an apparently successful bid to repeal portions of that law.

Now the Legislature may be faced with a new task related to changing Maine’s vote-count system: funding it.

A people’s veto petition to repeal the bill delaying the implementation of RCV to 2021 was submitted to Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office Feb. 2. The effort appears to have enough signatures to send the measure to a June referendum.

Campaigners gathered about 80,000 signatures, 72,175 of which have been certified by town clerks as registered Maine voters. Petitioners needed 61,123 signatures to send the issue to a vote. Dunlap’s staff has until March 5 to certify the signatures.

The existence of a people’s veto immediately blocks the postponement legislation, meaning that as of Feb. 2, RCV is once again law of the land. If Dunlap’s office certifies at least 61,123 signatures, RCV will remain in place until voters decide in June whether to veto the Legislature’s delay bill.

If Dunlap’s staff approves the signatures, he will then approach the Legislature asking for funding to implement RCV, which his office estimates would cost the state about $1.5 million over a two-year period.

For Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County), the matter will come down to three questions. First, he said, will be determining whether there’s enough political will to fund the changes. Then, it will come down to figuring out where to get the money, an effort he said wouldn’t be easy.

Langley pointed to a government surplus of $111 million last year that will need to be allocated for different state operations. Large chunks of that money have already been allocated. He estimated that there is “about 10 times that requested from individual bills.”

Medicaid is another funding issue facing the Legislature. An expansion referendum was passed by voters in 2016 — during the same election that RCV won statewide support. It also hasn’t been funded. On both issues, Mainers have criticized officials in Augusta for failing to implement laws supported through votes. Governor Paul LePage has demanded that lawmakers fund the Medicaid expansion without raising taxes or dipping into a rainy day fund.

But to Langley, the last question was “probably the most telling.”

“Could [Dunlap’s staff] pull it off in a way that everybody’s confident has worked?” he asked. “This is all new territory.”

He cited uncertainties about voters’ trust in the new system and constitutionality concerns that linger around RCV.

But before getting to that point will be the question of how much money will be allocated to implement the voting law.

Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for Dunlap, said the Secretary of State’s Office had planned for the financial implications of RCV before the issue went to voters in 2016. State staff drafted a fiscal note, which is the origin of the $1.5 million figure that was then passed to the Legislature.

“[The Legislature was] made aware of the fiscal note back when the initiative went out for signatures, which is well before it was put on the ballot and voted into law, and certainly well before this past October,” Muszynski said, referencing the delay bill that was passed in the fall. “The Legislature was made aware of the funding needs at that time and could have taken action on it at any time.”

But regardless of whether lawmakers offer Dunlap’s staff any money at all, she said they would still have to implement RCV.

“We’d have to implement it, because it’s law. We’d have to find a way to do that,” said Muszynski, who explained that without funding, the staff would carry out a “stripped down” version of what’s in the fiscal note.

In an interview, Dunlap said this could theoretically mean counting ballots by hand, a process that could take weeks.

“The trajectory of this is really going to depend on what resources the Legislature gives us to work with,” Dunlap said. “If we don’t have those resources … we would have to contemplate either deploying the commonly used [electronic ballot] tabulators to those areas, or short of that, doing some type of a hand tabulation, which could take a long time.

“And when I say a long time, we could be talking about weeks, possibly. The concern we have about doing it at that level is that the more time that goes by, and you don’t have a definitive result, suspicions will creep in that someone’s got their thumb on the scale, and they’re trying to cook a result.”

Muszynski said the Secretary of State’s Office doesn’t have any other discretionary funds it could use for this implementation, so what the Legislature gives it is really what will be used to put in place June’s primaries.

“We don’t have the money to cover implementing,” she said. “But we’d still have to find a way to get it together … There’s no way around implementing it. It’s law, so we have to implement it. It will get done.”

Dunlap echoed a similar sentiment related to the timeline between March 5 and the primaries.

“June 12th is the primary; that’s our deadline to get it done,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s enough time, that’s how much time we have.”

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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