Joshua Dunlap, an attorney from Pierce Atwood, left, and Jason Savage, Maine Republican Party executive director, talk to reporters about the ranked choice voting lawsuit at the Maine Republican Party convention. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

AUGUSTA — The Maine Republican Party launched its latest challenge to ranked-choice voting Friday, changing party rules and filing a federal lawsuit that would block the secretary of state from employing the voter-approved system in the party’s primary on June 12.

The party announced the suit shortly after delegates at its biannual convention voted unanimously to change the party’s platform rules to say they preferred using a plurality vote in their primary.

The suit, filed Friday in federal court in Bangor, seeks a quick injunction against Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap that would prohibit him from proceeding with a retabulation of the ballots cast in the Republican primary as called for under the ranked-choice voting law if a candidate does not win a majority in the first count of ballots.

“The first round of counting would happen as it always has at the local municipal level, and so we are requesting the counting then stop after that first round,” said Joshua Dunlap, an attorney with Pierce Atwood who filed the suit for the Maine Republican Party. He said the suit is based on established federal precedent that political parties, as associations, have First Amendment Rights and the way they choose their nominees for office is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

“We feel the case law and precedent are clear, and that forcing Republicans to change the way we nominate our candidates is a clear violation of our First Amendment rights,” said Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party. “We hope the court will expedite our request and act quickly to protect our right to select our nominee the way we choose.”

Dunlap declined to comment on the lawsuit Friday. His office already has printed the June 12 primary ballots in a ranked-choice format and recently posted extensive voter education materials on the state website, putting Maine on track to become the first state in the nation to use the ranked-choice system in a statewide election.

Kyle Bailey, a spokesman for the Committee on Ranked Choice Voting, called the move “a political stunt” that was not supported by all Republicans.

“Opponents of ranked-choice voting have been relentless in the last six months,” Bailey said. “They have pulled out all the stops to try and undermine ranked-choice voting, but what they are doing is undermining our elections.”

Scott Ogden, a spokesman for the Maine Democratic Party, said Democrats would abide by the ballot box law in the primary election regardless the outcome of the federal litigation launched by Republicans.

“The Maine Democratic Party has every intention of following the law and respecting the will of Maine people, who have said repeatedly that they want to elect their leaders through ranked-choice voting,” Ogden said. “We’re disappointed that the Maine Republican Party thinks they know better than the majority of Mainers.”

Under Maine’s traditional voting system, the candidate who gets the highest vote total, or plurality, is declared the winner, even if that is less than 50 percent in a race with three or more contestants.

In the ranked-choice system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If after the first count no one wins a majority – more than 50 percent of the vote – the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters who chose the eliminated candidate would have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidates, and the ballots would be retabulated. The process continues until one candidate has a majority and is declared the winner.

Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage talks with reporters about the ranked choice voting lawsuit in Augusta on Friday. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

The Committee on Ranked Choice Voting ran the campaign to establish the first-in-the-nation system, which was supported by 52 percent of Maine voters in a November 2016 referendum.

“If Maine Republican Party leaders and the activists and party leaders in this convention hall want to pick up the tab for their own primary they can conduct their primary the way the want to,” Bailey said. “But Maine taxpayers are picking up the tab for their election and a majority of Maine taxpayers voted for ranked-choice voting – including a heck of a lot of Republicans.”

The federal suit is the latest of several legal challenges to the ranked-choice system. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling in April ordering that ranked-choice voting be used in the June primary. The ruling upheld a decision by a Kennebec County Superior Court justice that ordered the Secretary of State to move forward with the system.

The Legislature repealed ranked choice in October of 2017 after legal concerns were raised about whether the system violates the Maine Constitution. But the repeal law has been put on hold, after ranked-choice supporters collected some 80,000 voter signatures to launch a people’s veto of the law. The people’s veto proposal also will be on the June 12 primary ballot.

If it passes, ranked-choice voting will apply to primary elections for governor and the Legislature, and to primary and general elections for the U.S. House and Senate.

Savage, the Republican Party director, said the party had to wait until it modified its own rules at the convention Friday before it could file the federal lawsuit, which is why they waited until just six weeks before the election to take legal action.

How quickly the federal district court will take the case up is uncertain, but Joshua Dunlap, the party’s lawyer, said the party is asking the court to expedite the case.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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