PORTLAND, Maine — A state supreme court decision Tuesday cleared the way for election officials to print ranked choice voting ballots in Maine’s presidential election, but it’s still unclear whether the voting system will be used in that contest.
The Supreme Judicial Court concluded that a judge’s decision that would have prevented the voting system from being used in the presidential contest is on hold during an appeal. But it’s still possible the court could ultimately delay ranked voting in the contest once it rules on the merits of the appeal, the Maine Republican Party said.
"We will continue to fight to ensure the voices of Mainers are heard,” the GOP said in a statement.
The latest legal development came after the judge’s ruling appeared to be the final word two weeks ago.
Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat, contended the GOP fell short of the threshold of 63,067 signatures to force a November referendum on ranked choice voting in the presidential race. But the judge had allowed the referendum to proceed after validating enough signatures to surpass the threshold by 22 signatures.
The matter of whether there are enough signatures has yet to be decided by the state supreme court. A referendum on ranked choice voting would prevent the method from being used in this November's presidential election.
For now, Dunlap said he's proceeding with printing ranked ballots for the presidential race — and no referendum. He said it would be a “disaster” if the court does an about-face in coming days.
“We’re not in a posture where we can wait," Dunlap said. “We have to go with that we know.”
Maine’s ranked voting system, approved by state voters in 2016, has turned into a fierce partisan issue. Republicans have been adamantly against the voting system while Democrats favour the change.
Supporters say the voting system eliminates the impact of so-called “spoiler candidates” and produces a majority winner without the need for an additional runoff election. Critics say it’s unnecessarily complicated. They have also argued that it disenfranchises voters.
The GOP blamed the system for the ouster of a congressman in 2018, even though the incumbent had the most first-place votes.
The ranked choice voting system lets people rank all of the candidates from first to last on their ballots.
A candidate who reaches 50% or more in the first round of voting is declared the winner. If there’s no majority, then there are additional tabulations, aided by computers, in which last-place finishers are eliminated and those voters’ second choices are reallocated to the remaining field.
The system was used for the first time in congressional elections in Maine in 2018, but the Legislature took action to ensure that it would also be used in presidential races, as well.
The 11th-hour drama came as the secretary of state delayed the printing of ballots — originally set for an Aug. 28 deadline — for the November election.
The constitutionality of the voting system has been twice upheld by a federal judge in Maine. But it’s not used in the governor’s race or legislative contests because it runs afoul of the Maine Constitution.
This story has been corrected to show that the threshold for a referendum to appear on the ballot was 63,067 signatures, not 63,068 signatures.
David Sharp, The Associated Press