Maine was the first state to use ranked-choice voting in elections with three or more candidates, but we probably won’t be the last.

Next year six states – Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Nevada and Wyoming – will use the system in the hotly contested Democratic presidential primary.

But, unless something happens soon, Maine will not be among them. We will have a presidential primary March 2, replacing an unpopular caucus system. But a bill to add the primary to the list of elections that use ranked-choice voting was hung up on the last day of the legislative session. It cleared three votes in the House and two in the Senate, but it stalled before a final enactment vote and was carried over to a later legislative session.

When the Senate takes up L.D. 1083 for the final time, it’s likely to pass. But if that vote doesn’t take place soon, the law won’t go into effect in time to be used in the 2020 primary. The Legislature will convene Monday to vote on bond issues, but lawmakers say they have no plans to bring up ranked-choice voting – or any unfinished business other than the bonds – during the special session. If they wait until the next regular session, which starts in January, the first Maine presidential primary that uses ranked-choice voting won’t be until 2024.

Lawmakers should not miss the opportunity to get this system up and running in time for the March primary. Ranked-choice voting will be used in the June primaries for all state and federal offices, and in November for U.S. Senate, congressional representative and president. Ranked-choice voting would be especially useful in what what could be a 20-way Democratic primary race in which voters will be trying to decide whether to vote for a favorite candidate or one who is perceived to be more electable. In a ranked-choice race, voters can listen to everyone and choose their favorites without having to think like a pundit who just predicts a winner.

And legislators should consider why they want to keep throwing obstacles in the way of an election reform that voters have clearly said that they like. Citizens gathered signatures to get the message on the ballot in 2016 and it won 52 percent to 47 percent. But after the state supreme court issued an opinion that questioned the use of ranked-choice voting in some races (governor and legislator) without a constitutional amendment, the Legislature and then-Gov. Paul LePage passed a bill that would have effectively nullified the referendum vote.

So, citizens went back out on the streets and gathered another set of signatures, putting a people’s veto on the ballot, and clarifying the status of the law in all but the two elections that would require a constitutional amendment. It too passed handily, 54 percent to 46 percent.

Elected officials and party operatives have never been especially enthusiastic about ranked-choice voting, but voters have. Through two referendums and an election cycle of primaries and a general election, voters have shown they understand how to fill out a ballot that asks whether they have a preference for another candidate if their favorite can’t win. The most confusing aspect of the system is the on-again-off-again way that it’s used in some races but not others.

Given that history, you would think that Gov. Mills and the Legislature would do what’s necessary to honor the will of the voters. Extending a vote system already in place for existing primaries to a new primary on a different date should not be controversial. Members of the state Senate should find time this week to finish their work on the ranked-choice bill.

And next session, they should send a constitutional amendment out to the voters that would end the confusion and use one system for all state and federal races, as required by the original law that was passed by the voters.

 


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