AUGUSTA — Dozens of people attended a public hearing Wednesday to support a bill that would expand Maine’s first-in-the-nation ranked-choice voting system to presidential elections.

Although no one testified against the measure before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, a top state election official warned that the state would have trouble implementing the bill because of tight deadlines for providing ballots to military members and other Maine voters overseas.

The bill’s primary sponsor, state Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, fielded questions from lawmakers on the committee, including Republicans who are strongly opposed to Maine’s ranked-choice system, which was approved by voters twice in statewide ballot measures. Jackson said he was not initially a fan of the system, but now that Maine has it and voters seem to like it he thought it was time to expand it.

“I wasn’t someone who was out there beating the drum or anything like that,” Jackson said.

Larry Litchfield, a Belfast resident, told committee members the bill was part of a bigger effort seeking to restore faith and credibility in U.S. voting systems.

Litchfield called the bill “an important step in the effort to make our presidential election process in Maine more user-friendly” and said it represented a “move towards the completion of ranked-choice voting. It is thus part of a more comprehensive effort to repair a dated and damaged electoral system throughout the country.”

‘IF IT AIN’T BROKE …’

But Republicans, who have largely opposed ranked choice, pushed back against its supporters, saying they didn’t believe the original system was broken but working as it should.

“To me the old analogy is, ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,'” said Rep. Sheldon Hanington, R-Lincoln, a committee member who questioned witnesses. Hanington said he had voted since 1980, was satisfied with the outcomes of some elections and dissatisfied with others, but wasn’t convinced the system was broken.

The ranked-choice process allows voters to cast ballots for their preferred candidate and rank the others in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority in the first count, election officials eliminate the last-place finisher and redistribute that candidate’s votes based on each voter’s second-choice ranking. This process continues – with last-place candidates being eliminated and their votes reallocated – until one candidate breaks the threshold of 50 percent.

Maine uses ranked-choice voting only in party primaries and general elections for Congress. Another bill before the Legislature seeks an amendment to the state’s constitution that would allow ranked-choice voting in elections for the Legislature and governor. The constitution currently requires that those elections be determined by plurality, giving victory to the candidate with the most votes on the first count.

Under Jackson’s bill, if a political party chooses to hold a primary, rather than a caucus, to select its presidential nominee, the voting shall be done using a ranked-choice system. Ballots cast in the general election for president also would be tabulated by ranked choice.

Maine voters approved ranked-choice voting first in 2017 in a statewide ballot measure and again in June of 2018, when they overturned the Legislature’s effort to repeal the system.

Opponents to the voting method, which is sometimes called an instant runoff election, say it is confusing for voters. They also have argued it is unconstitutional. But the law has withstood multiple legal challenges in both state and federal court, including a December 2018 ruling by a federal judge in Bangor.

ELECTION OFFICIAL’S CONCERNS

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, the state’s second-highest-ranking election official, said the Secretary of State’s Office was neither for nor against the bill, but did “wholeheartedly support a return to the presidential primary over a caucus …”

Flynn said there were technical issues with the bill, including the timing of holding a primary election in early March and then tabulating it without running up against other deadlines in state law for candidates to turn in their nominating petitions. She said for the law to go into effect for the 2020 presidential primary, candidates would need to have their petitions filed with the state by July of this year, which would be before the bill, if passed, would go into effect.

Flynn also said conducting the retabulation of a ranked-choice primary in March, which could take several days, if not weeks, would run up against other deadlines for printing ballots to send to overseas Maine voters.

She also raised concerns about language in the bill that would give the secretary of state the discretion to exclude fringe candidates who stood no chance of winning the presidential election.

“I think this is a problematic situation, certain to generate legal challenges,” Flynn said.

The bill will be the subject of a work session and votes before the committee in the days ahead before it can move on to the full Legislature for additional votes and consideration.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-3330 or at:

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