As lawmakers prepare for a one-day special session, ranked-choice voting advocates are waging a last-ditch campaign to salvage a bill that would allow Maine voters to rank the contenders in next March’s presidential primaries.

Lawmakers voted in June to join the vast majority of states that use statewide primary elections – rather than more complicated and time-consuming local caucuses – to help select parties’ presidential nominees. Although opponents hope to block the presidential primary vote by triggering a “people’s veto” initiative, Mainers are currently due to join voters in 14 other states in casting ballots on March 3 during the so-called “Super Tuesday” primaries.

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file photo

A bill to use Maine’s ranked-choice voting process during the presidential primary received initial approval in both chambers of the Legislature but was shelved during the final hours of the 2019 legislative session.

Supporters likely have one last shot at allowing voters to rank presidential nominees in March: Convince legislative leaders to take up the bill when the Legislature reconvenes Monday. But it’s unclear if they can make that happen, especially given Gov. Janet Mills’ clear desire that lawmakers not stray from the reason she called the special session in the first place.

“It’s the governor’s preference that the special session focuses on the bond proposals,” Mills spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said, referring to a state borrowing package to fund highway repairs, broadband expansion and environmental initiatives.

Ranked-choice advocates remain hopeful, however, and are using social media to urge their supporters to contact legislators.

“It’s not particularly controversial, so we are encouraging lawmakers to take it up,” said David Farmer, spokesman for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting. “We know they are trying to limit the agenda, and that we are asking a lot. But we feel like Mainers should be able to rank their votes, especially considering the primary in March when voters could see an unprecedented number of candidates. This is the type of voting that ranked-choice was created for.”

Maine was the first state to use ranked-choice voting in statewide elections last year. The voting system, which is now being eyed by other states, came into play during Mills’ victory in the seven-person Democratic primary and then during Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s victory over incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin in November.

Approved twice at the ballot box by Maine voters, the process allows voters to rank contenders in races with three or more candidates in order of preference on the ballot sheet. If any candidate receives 50 percent or more of the vote on the first tally, he or she is declared the winner and the election is over. If no one receives a majority, however, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and that candidate’s votes are reallocated to the candidates that their supporters ranked second.

That process continues – with candidates eliminated from the bottom up and their supporters’ votes redistributed – until one candidate secures a majority of the remaining vote pool.

Ranked-choice voting is currently used in primary elections for governor and the Legislature and in both primary and general elections for Maine’s representatives to Congress. But Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office believes a bill explicitly authorizing the process for presidential primaries is necessary because, in a presidential primary, voters are actually choosing presidential electors who will then cast the state’s votes during a national convention.

Time is running out to use the process in the presidential primary, however, even though the March 3 election is still six months away.

In Maine, bills do not become law until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns unless they are enacted as an “emergency measure,” which requires two-thirds support in both chambers. Because most Republican lawmakers have consistently opposed ranked-choice voting, supporters of the process would likely be unable to muster the two-thirds vote needed to pass the bill as an emergency measure when the Legislature returns in January.

That means Monday’s special session is likely the last chance – political realities being what they are – for supporters to get the bill passed.

“We have had ranked-choice voting here in Maine, we’ve seen that it can be successful, and the voters have been very clear,” Farmer said. “Two different times they have voted in support of ranked-choice.”

The ranked-choice bill is among more than 200 measures that lawmakers kept alive or “carried over” until next year’s legislative session. However, Mills and legislative leaders have signaled that they plan to limit the special session to the proposed $163 million in bonds and perhaps a handful of other issues from the governor.

A spokeswoman for Senate President Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat who sponsored the ranked-choice bill, said Thursday that lawmakers are “only taking up the governor’s bills on Monday.”

Jackson’s bill received majority support in both chambers of the Legislature during initial votes. It was held up before final enactment in the Senate and eventually tabled, however, amid confusion about the price tag. Dunlap’s office estimates it will cost about $100,000 to implement ranked-choice voting for the presidential primary, so lawmakers will have to find a way to fund the measure.

But Dunlap said the logistical task of implementing ranked-choice voting for the March presidential primary “would not be insignificant” for his office.

“If we have to do it, we have to do and will find a way,” Dunlap said.

The debate over using ranked-choice voting in a presidential primary could be for naught if a “people’s veto” campaign is successful. The campaign must turn in at least 63,067 valid signatures from registered voters to Dunlap’s office by Sept. 18 in order to suspend the presidential primary law and trigger a “people’s veto” vote next June.


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