AUGUSTA — A committee of lawmakers was unable to reach a consensus recommendation Thursday on two ranked-choice voting bills submitted in response to legal questions about the first-in-the-nation system approved by voters in November.

In an often confusing work session, the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee voted 6-6-1 on the bills. One sought to send a constitutional amendment to voters, and one proposed an outright repeal of the measure. The division means the full Legislature will have to decide which of five different options it likes best.

The voting Thursday followed a recent advisory opinion from Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court that found parts of the law, which was supported by 51 percent of the voters in November 2016, was not in line with the state’s constitution. The court said the constitution requires that legislators and the governor be elected by a plurality, and elections for those offices conducted under a ranked choice system would likely be challenged in court, potentially invalidating the results and forcing a new election.

Ranked choice voting changes the way voters select legislators, the governor and Maine’s four congressional delegates. Under the new law voters will rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the first place 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. The balloting system is mostly intended to ensure a majority winner in races with more than two candidates.

The committee in large part punted the problem, and to some degree the confusion, to the full Legislature by failing to offer lawmakers a clear recommendation on how to implement what many see as the “will of the voters.”

The options for the Legislature to consider will be an outright repeal of the new law; a change that would implement the law only for primary and congressional election; a delay in implementation of the law until the Legislature can pass and voters ratify an amendment to the state constitution; a delay in implementing parts of the law until 2019; and the option to pass a constitutional amendment now and send it to voters for ratification this fall.

The committee’s divisions did not fall strictly along partisan lines, although Republicans do appear to be more in favor of an outright repeal, saying that having two different voting systems for Maine could be both costly and confusing.

Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, who supported the repeal measure, said there were only 11 places, mostly cities, including Portland, that use ranked choice voting in the U.S.

“That is 11 out of approximately 88,000 municipalities and counties here in the United States,” Collins said. “I just think, this is maybe a good idea, but I think we are premature on it. I would just like to see how this progresses in other parts of the country.”

If the Legislature is unable to reach agreement on repealing or changing the law it would stand until it is challenged and possibly overturned by a court, likely in a suit brought by a losing candidate. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who oversees statewide elections, said it would cost the state about $1.5 million to implement the law, but that doesn’t include any added expenses that cities and towns might face in changing to the new system.

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

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