Tom Waddell of Litchfield testifies in favor of adopting ranked-choice voting during a hearing before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Friday in Augusta. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

AUGUSTA — Supporters and opponents of ranked-choice voting laid out their cases Friday during a sometimes-heated four-hour hearing on a first-in-the-nation election method that the state’s highest court says is unconstitutional.

About two dozen people spoke to the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, with most urging members to keep ranked-choice voting as a way to depolarize an increasingly uncivil political landscape.

“Ranked-choice voting encourages politicians to reach across lines … to appeal beyond their natural constituents to voters who pick them as a second or third choice,” said Amy Smith, a retired political scientist and the town clerk in Arrowsic. Smith, citing her own academic studies, said plurality voting is often associated with increasingly uncivil and sometimes violent campaigns, in which politicians appeal solely to their own bases, or core constituencies.

“The surest way to rule their own base is to demean and disrespect the other side,” she said.

Mainers passed a ballot measure in November making the state the first to use a ranked-choice system to elect the governor, state lawmakers and members of Congress. The system allows voters to rank candidates by preference and uses a process of elimination to select the winner when there are multiple candidates for an office and none has more than 50 percent of the vote.

But the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion last month that ranked-choice voting violates the state constitution, which stipulates that candidates for state office be elected by a plurality, in which the candidate with the most votes wins.

Before the Legislature are a pair of opposing bills. One, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, would overturn the ranked-choice law enacted by voters in November. The other, sponsored by Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, would allow portions of the law that apply to congressional races and party primaries to go into effect. Breen’s bill also calls for the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment that would make ranked-choice voting legal.

Mason’s repeal bill requires simple majority support in the Legislature to pass, but the constitutional amendment proposed in Breen’s bill can only move forward with two-thirds support of the Legislature, a high bar in a State House that is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. If Breen’s bill did clear the Legislature, it would also have to be approved by a simple majority of Maine voters at referendum.

Anne Luther, advocacy chair for the Maine League of Women Voters, testifies in favor of ranked-choice voting during a legislative hearing Friday in Augusta. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

A third option also emerged Friday. Lawmakers could repeal only the parts of the bill that the court found unconstitutional, leaving ranked-choice voting in place for primaries and congressional races.

Supporters of the recently passed law told lawmakers their responsibility was to make the measure work, at least in the elections where there are no state constitutional conflicts, while opponents – who were largely outnumbered – argued that a dual election system would be both costly to run and confusing for voters.

“With almost half of Maine towns counting ballots by hand, we may not know a winner for days and more errors could occur in the convoluted counting process,” said Mason, sponsor of the repeal bill. He said lawmakers had taken an oath to uphold the state’s constitution, and that they were obligated to vote accordingly.

However, proponents of ranked-choice voting pointed out that the constitution also provides for the process of citizen-initiated legislation, and that lawmakers are obligated to respect the will of voters.

“There is absolutely no justification for Sen. Mason to introduce (a bill) to fully repeal ranked-choice voting because it goes against the wishes of the majority of the constituents in Maine, constituents Sen. Mason has a sworn duty to represent,” said Tom Waddel, a Litchfield resident who lives in Mason’s Senate District 22. “This bill simply seeks to defy the clear will of the people.”

The proposal passed in November with 388,882 votes, 52 percent of the vote statewide. Proponents are quick to note that the tally was the second-highest in state history for a ballot measure and that more people voted for the change than voted for either Democrat Hillary Clinton, who won Maine – or Republican Donald Trump.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting say it gives voters more power and the ability to vote for the candidate they like best instead of casting “a lesser of two evils” vote, as many voters said they felt they were doing in last year’s presidential race.

Rep. Kent Ackley, an independent from Monmouth, called the constitution “a sacred document that not only describes how it is we run elections but it describes how it is that the rights of citizens of Maine get to put forth citizen initiatives.”

Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, presents a bill to amend the state constitution to allow ranked-choice voting. Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, presents a bill to repeal the ranked-choice voting law. Staff photos by Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The deliberations on the two bills come less than a month after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued an advisory opinion to the Legislature that the parts of the new law that apply to statewide races for the Legislature and the governor’s office are not in line with the state’s constitution. The court said legal challenges to ranked-choice election results were likely.

But the court remained silent on party primary elections as well as congressional elections.

In ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has more than 50 percent of the top votes cast after the first tally, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters who chose the eliminated candidate have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidate and the ballots are retabulated. The process continues until one candidate has a majority of votes and is declared the winner. The Maine Constitution calls for candidates to be selected by plurality, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, even if the vote total is less than a majority.

“(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 in its unanimous opinion in May. “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.”

Lawmakers on Friday did not schedule a work session to discuss and vote on recommendations on the two bills as a committee. Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the House chairman of the panel, said he expected that would happen sometime in the next few days.

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

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