AUGUSTA — Supporters of a new Maine law that sets up the nation’s first ranked-choice voting system rallied Thursday at the State House and called on lawmakers to implement portions of the law that have not been called into question by the state’s highest court.

Voters approved ranked-choice voting through a ballot question last November, but the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued an advisory opinion in late May that found the parts of the law affecting candidates for governor and the Legislature were in conflict with the Maine Constitution, which calls for candidates to be selected by a plurality and not necessarily the majority required under the ranked-choice system.

In ranked choice, voters would select legislators, the governor and Maine’s four congressional delegates by ranking 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-choice candidate, and the ballots would be retabulated. The process would continue until one candidate had a clear majority – more than 50 percent – and is declared the winner.

The Maine Constitution calls for candidates to be selected by a plurality, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, even if the vote total is less than 50 percent.

Supporters of the new law said the court opinion found no issues with the law as it pertains to elections for the U.S. Congress or for the selection of candidates in party primaries.

“We wanted to make sure that people could vote their hopes and not their fears,” said former state Rep. Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat. Russell and former state Sen. Richard Woodbury, an independent from Yarmouth, said Thursday that lawmakers had no excuse for not moving forward with parts of the law that were not found to be in conflict with the state constitution.

TWO PROPOSALS, CONFLICTING GOALS

Thursday’s rally attended by about 60 supporters came one day before two bills filed in response to the court case go before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee for public hearings. One of the bills would repeal the new law in its entirety, and the other supports implementing ranked-choice voting for Congress and primary elections until the Legislature passes a constitutional amendment to enable ranked-choice voting for state offices.

The constitutional amendment would need the support of two-thirds of lawmakers and a majority of Maine voters at referendum.

“We believe strongly the ranked-choice voting law should remain fully intact, implemented in 2018 in all races where the constitution allows it, and that is most of them,” Woodbury said, “and ready to be implemented in state general elections pending a future constitutional amendment.”

Kyle Bailey, campaign manager and lead spokesman for the Ranked Choice Voting Committee, which backed the ballot question, said voters were clear in their decision last November and that lawmakers who ignore their will do so at their own peril. Bailey said the measure was backed by nearly 400,000 voters, the second-largest amount of support for any ballot question in state history.

Bailey said support for the measure crossed party lines and included independent voters.

“Ranked-choice voting puts more power in the hands of the people, but when we the people exercise the right to claim more power for ourselves it means that special interests and powerful politicians have to give up some of their power, and that’s a real rub for some of the people in this building,” he said. “Some politicians have forgotten their place, and while they were elected to represent us, some of them think they were elected to represent themselves.”

Bailey called the effort to repeal the law “a slap in your face.”

Critics say voters will be confused if they see two different types of ballots in the voting booth – one that employs a ranked-choice system for congressional candidates, and one with traditional plurality voting for governor and members of the Legislature.

HOW FAR OUT OF LINE WITH CONSTITUTION?

Meanwhile, Gov. Paul LePage said on a WGAN radio talk show Thursday in Portland that lawmakers should pass the repeal measure in order to support the state constitution.

Among the law’s supporters was Augusta Mayor Dave Rollins, who said LePage was wrong to suggest the ballot measure was wholly unconstitutional. “The Supreme (Judicial) Court’s decision was clear that it was only in those three instances on general elections that they found it unconstitutional,” Rollins said. He said it was “fact” that the law was now in place, and that lawmakers needed to follow the will of the people who supported ranked-choice voting.

Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, the sponsor of the repeal bill, said it wasn’t up to lawmakers to amend the constitution to accommodate a new law.

“Maine’s highest court has sent a clear message that the ranked-choice voting referendum passed last November is in direct violation of the constitution of Maine,” Mason said. “It’s now our job to fix this problem before serious legal issues arise.”

The hearings on the two ranked-choice bills will begin at 9 a.m.

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

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