The Maine Republican Party is moving forward in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic with a signature-gathering campaign to block the first-ever use of ranked-choice voting in November’s presidential election.

Under an agreement with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, petitioners collecting voter signatures have been granted essential worker status in a $400,000 campaign funded by the party through a ballot question committee.

Of that funding, about $375,000 has gone to out-of-state consultants who oversee the paid signature-gathering process.

The campaign reflects Republican efforts nationally to oppose election laws they view as too liberal or unconstitutional. It may also indicate concern that ranked-choice voting could prevent President Trump from repeating the 2016 performance that allowed him to capture one of Maine’s four Electoral College votes.

Supporters of ranked-choice voting have filed a lawsuit against Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap that could derail the campaign. The plaintiffs argue that Dunlap should not have approved petitions for the campaign because the state constitution prohibits a people’s veto effort once a law is already on the books.

The campaign needs 63,607 voter signatures by June 15 to force a people’s veto vote on the issue. The signatures are submitted to Dunlap’s office for validation after they have been verified locally by town and city clerks.

Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage said volunteers and paid campaign workers will be following a protocol set with the state, setting up folding card tables as signature-gathering stations, equipped with hand sanitizer, petitions and disposable pens. They will be monitored by the person gathering the signatures from at least 6 feet away who is wearing a face mask and gloves for added protection, Savage said.

He said the campaign, which started gathering signatures in February, has reached 80 to 85 percent of its goal. Most petition drives in Maine set a goal above the minimum requirement, usually around 80,000 signatures, to allow for signatures that are invalidated.

“We are within striking distance,” Savage said, adding that supporters feel they are defending the constitutional principle of “one person, one vote.”

The ranked-choice voting process allows – but does not require – voters to rank candidates in order of preference on their ballots for races that have three or more contenders. If one candidate wins a majority on the first tally of votes, the election is over and that person is declared the victor. But if no one receives a majority, voters’ ranked preferences will be used to decide a winner.

The candidate with the fewest votes after the first tally is eliminated from contention and their supporters’ votes are reallocated to the remaining contenders based on each voter’s ranked preferences. The process continues – with candidates being eliminated from the bottom up – until one person has received a majority of the remaining vote pool.

Maine now uses ranked-choice voting in primary elections for state offices and in primary and general elections for members of Congress. The Legislature passed a bill in 2019 to extend ranked-choice voting to presidential primaries and general elections as well. The bill became law with the signature of Gov. Janet Mills earlier this year and was on the books in time for the state’s new March presidential primary.

If the current petition drive is successful, ranked-choice voting in the November presidential election would be put on hold, and voters would cast ballots on whether to repeal the law. Maine voters have twice endorsed ranked-choice voting in statewide balloting, first approving the process and then overturning a law that would have repealed it that was passed by the Legislature.

The ranked-choice system has also withstood multiple legal challenges and been upheld by state and federal court decisions in Maine, including a 2018 ruling by U.S. District Judge Lance Walker.

The lawsuit against Dunlap, filed by the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, contends that he violated the constitution because he approved the signature-gathering petitions after the presidential ranked-choice system had already become law.

James Monteleone, a lawyer for the committee, said the suit is proceeding but was in a holding pattern for now.

“We are largely waiting to see whether or not they follow through with their petitions,” Monteleone said.

Maine Republican Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas, who is opposing the suit, has called it “frivolous.” Dunlap has declined to comment on the pending litigation and has yet to answer the formal legal complaint.

Through a ballot question committee, the state party has spent $372,000 on the petition drive so far, including $100,000 to Gocu Consulting in Reno, Nevada, according to campaign finance records on file with the Maine Ethics Commission. The records also show the party first paid Stampede Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia, $375,000 for work on the campaign. That firm in turned paid additional vendors, including Gocu, according to Savage.

The Maine Republican Party also transferred more than $125,000 from its federal political action committee to the Maine ballot question committee. Much of that money originally came from national-level political action committees that contributed to Maine Republicans and other conservative causes at the federal level.

Those donations include funds from other federal super PACs. The state party’s committee also received a $17,298 contribution from a political action committee set up for the re-election campaign of  U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. In addition, the party collected a $128,570 contribution from the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s Targeted State Victory Committee and another $155,000 from the Republican National Committee, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Those contributions signify the emphasis being placed on Maine and the party’s effort to protect the president’s prospects here – while also working to defeat a voting process that conservatives believe works against them.

On the payroll for the petition drive are dozens of paid signature-gatherers, many of whom have worked on previous initiative campaigns in Maine.

Monteleone, the lawyer for ranked-choice supporters, questioned whether it was legal for that kind of paid work to be done during the pandemic, even though the state issued guidance to the Republican Party for the signature-gathering process. He also noted that the Maine Constitution spells out in some detail how signatures need to be gathered and processed, saying those requirements can’t be altered by an executive order, even in a state of civil emergency.

“There will be a lot of scrutiny into how signatures are collected in light of what is basically state law, requiring social distancing procedures, to ensure that the standards the constitution sets out for these signatures are met,” Monteleone said. He said the scrutiny required by petition circulators requires them to swear under oath that to the best of their knowledge  voters signing a petition are who they say they are.

“I think that generally requires closer contact than being on the opposite side of a parking lot and seeing someone at a table signing a sheet a paper,” Monteleone said.

Savage, the state party’s director, said the campaign has done trial runs to refine the process for collecting signatures to ensure it meet standards.

In the interim, Savage said, the campaign has largely depended on circulators getting signatures from family members and friends.

Trump’s re-election campaign in Maine highlighted the signature-gathering effort to block ranked-choice voting in text messages to supporters last week, referring to petition stations in Waterville, Farmington and Bangor.

“Most locations will also have Trump 2020 yard signs available to sign out as well,” the message read. “This isn’t the most comfortable situation for anyone, but if this is what it will take to collect the signatures we need to repeal RCV, then that is the best we can do at this point.”

Kouzounas, the state party chairwoman, also sent an email to party members recruiting workers to collect signatures for pay on Thursday.

“You will be able to work as an essential worker and follow safety and social distancing guidelines, in this great opportunity. All the materials you will need will be provided,” Kouzounas wrote.

In 2016, Trump got more votes that Hillary Clinton in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, thereby winning one of the state’s four electoral votes. Maine is one of only two states that splits its Electoral College votes by congressional district.

But Savage dismissed the notion that preventing ranked-choice voting for the November presidential election, which could feature a number of third-party candidates, was a strategy to improve Trump’s electoral vote prospects in Maine.

“It’s really more about the public sentiment about ranked-choice voting being where it is right now and stopping it from expanding more than it is about the outcome of any individual election,” Savage said.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.