AUGUSTA — State House leaders Thursday approved introducing competing bills that address ranked-choice voting – one would repeal the first-in-the-nation voting law and the other would put a ballot question to voters on whether to change the state’s constitution to make it legal statewide.

Members of the Legislative Council, which includes majority and minority leaders in both chambers as well as the Senate president and the speaker of the House, approved the bills in 9-0 votes. They now will move to public hearings and work sessions before the full Legislature votes on them.

The bills come just two days after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued an advisory opinion that found parts of the new law dealing with electing state officials – including the governor and legislators – violate the state Constitution. This could result in legal challenges to election results if a ranked-choice system is used.

Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, sponsor of the bill seeking a constitutional amendment, said she was disappointed that there would be a competing bill to undo the law and that fighting it would be difficult.

Amending the state constitution requires approval by two-thirds of the Legislature before it could go to voters; the repeal bill requires only a simple majority vote by legislators.

Gov. Paul LePage and most Republican lawmakers have argued that the law is unconstitutional. LePage has said he doesn’t necessarily oppose ranked-choice voting, but that it would require a constitutional amendment to enact it.

Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he voted to introduce the repeal bill only so the Legislature could discuss it.

“I’m voting to let this bill in while I will be vehemently against it,” Jackson said.

Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, supports the repeal because he believes lawmakers have a responsibility to uphold the state constitution.

“The court was decisively clear in their opinion,” Mason said. “I view this matter clearly as, ‘Are you going to uphold the constitution or are you not?’ “

He went on to say that ranked-choice voting law was “unAmerican.”

“This is electioneering in its finest form,” Mason said. “What’s next? Democrats aren’t happy that Paul LePage won an election two times so they got ranked-choice voting on the ballot.”

The ranked-choice system fundamentally changes the way voters would select legislators, the governor and Maine’s four members of Congress. Voters would rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate had more than 50 percent of votes, the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated. Voters who chose the eliminated candidate would have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidate, and the ballots would be retabulated. The process would continue until one candidate had a clear majority and was declared the winner.

But Maine’s Constitution calls for candidates to be selected by plurality – the candidate with the most votes wins, even if the vote total is less than 50 percent.

“The Act (the ranked-choice system), in contrast, would not declare the plurality candidate the winner of the election, but would require continued tabulation until a majority is achieved or all votes are exhausted,” the court wrote. “Accordingly, the Act is not simply another method of carrying out the constitution’s requirement of a plurality. In essence, the Act is inapplicable if there are only two candidates, and it is in direct conflict with the constitution if there are more than two candidates.”

In the last 51 years only one of Maine’s governors, Democrat Kenneth Curtis, was elected to office his first time with more than 50 percent of the vote statewide. In 2010, LePage won election in a five-way race with 38 percent of the vote, while his predecessor Democrat John Baldacci won his first term with 47 percent of the vote.

Supporters of the switch said the state’s high court did not make any finding on congressional races or statewide primary races, and that Maine could have a dual election system in which state candidates are selected under the current setup, while the three party primaries and four congressional candidates are decided by ranked-choice voting. The Republicans, Democrats and Green Independents are Maine’s three official political parties.

Kyle Bailey, a spokesman for the Ranked Choice Voting Committee, criticized the decision to move forward with a bill that could possibly repeal the law.

“Voters approved this referendum by the second largest vote for a ballot question in Maine history,” Bailey said. “Questions have been raised about constitutionality, but there are no questions in using ranked-choice voting in seven out of 10 elections which the people approved. Now the Legislature needs to act to have ranked-choice voting in place to implement the will of the people for the 2018 election, period.”

Mason said Republicans won’t agree to a dual election system for Maine. “Do you really want to have two different ballots on Election Day?” he asked. “That’s insane.”

Lawmakers have less than four weeks to settle the issue before the Legislature’s June 21 adjournment date. Public hearings on the two bills have not yet been scheduled.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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