The Maine secretary of state on Wednesday rejected a referendum initiative aimed at stopping the use of ranked-choice voting in presidential elections, saying the state Republican Party and others behind it hadn’t submitted enough valid signatures to put the question on the November ballot.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Opponents of ranked choice submitted 72,512 signatures in June, but Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office found 11,178 were not from valid registered voters, leaving the petition short of the 63,067-signature threshold needed to get the question on the ballot.

The people’s veto effort sought to repeal parts of Chaptered Law 539, which expanded the use of ranked-choice voting to the presidential primary and general election in Maine. Since there will be no referendum question on the ballot, ranked choice will be in effect in November’s presidential election. Otherwise, it would have been delayed at least until after voters weighed in.

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said he was reviewing Dunlap’s two-page decision, which lists the reasons why signatures were invalidated. About a third of those rejected – 3,543 – were never validated by a voter registrar as a registered Maine voter, according to the decision.

In all, the effort fell 1,733 signatures short. Savage said Wednesday in a phone interview that the Maine Republican Party was never given notice that there were problems with the signatures and is considering its options.

Maine Republican Party Chair Dr. Demi Kouzounas issued a statement on the decision Wednesday.

“Let me be clear. This fight is not over,” she said. “It is abundantly clear that the Secretary of State used every trick in the book to throw out enough signatures through a litany of technicalities to keep this question off the ballot.”

President Trump’s campaign also weighed in on Dunlap’s decision Wednesday night.

“This is a disgusting partisan attempt by a Democrat Secretary of State to suppress votes,” said Justin Clark, Trump 2020 senior political adviser and senior counsel, in an emailed statement. “The Secretary of State does not have the right to silence voters and we will not let this stand.”

Savage said the campaign anticipated some signatures would be rejected but believed at least 68,000 were valid and would seek additional information from Dunlap.

The campaign could appeal Dunlap’s decision in court, but Savage said no decision had been made as of Wednesday night.

Dunlap’s office is responsible for validating voter signatures on all petitions submitted for referendum initiatives or to get candidates on the ballot.

A lawsuit alleging that Dunlap violated state law by allowing the petition signatures to be gathered after ranked choice had become law is before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, but his decision Wednesday to end the initiative may make the suit moot. It was filed by a voter on behalf of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting.

Ranked-choice voting is also used in congressional races in Maine.

Maine is one of only two states to split its Electoral College votes by congressional district. The winner of each district receives one electoral vote, and the overall state winner receives the remaining two votes.

In 2016, Trump won in the 2nd District by 10 points and was awarded one electoral vote while Democrat Hillary Clinton won the statewide race and the 1st District, giving her the remaining three electoral votes.

Using ranked-choice voting could foil Trump’s hope for a repeat 2nd District win in 2016. There will be at least one third party presidential candidate on the ballot and two independents are trying to collect the 4,000 signatures needed to be added to the ballot in November.

Under the ranked-choice system, voters select candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Voters who preferred the eliminated candidate would then 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 clear majority of votes.

This could hurt Trump if he defeats presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the 2nd District, but gets less than 50 percent of the vote.

The $400,000 referendum campaign, a top priority of the Maine GOP, reflects Republican efforts nationally to oppose election laws they view as too liberal or unconstitutional. About $375,000 of that money was paid to out-of-state consultants who oversaw the paid signature-gathering process.

The signature shortfall is the latest of several failed referendum drives by Republicans in recent years, including efforts in 2015 to repeal the state income tax and new requirements for receiving welfare benefits.

Maine’s first-in-the-nation ranked-choice system withstood a federal legal challenge in 2018 after Democrat Jared Golden unseated incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin in the 2nd Congressional District after Poliquin won the initial vote with less than a clear majority.

Maine remains the only state to have a statewide ranked-choice voting law, but dozens of U.S. cities use it, including Portland, according to FairVote, a Maryland-based nonprofit that advocates for election reform.

Voters have twice supported ranked-choice voting in Maine, approving the initial law at the ballot box in 2016 and then voting to overturn a legislative repeal in 2018.

Advocates for ranked-choice hailed Wednesday’s decision.

“Voters in Maine have made up their minds about ranked-choice voting. They like it, it’s easy to understand and it gives them more voice,” said David Farmer, a spokesperson for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting 2020. “Even after spending more than half a million dollars, opponents of ranked-choice voting couldn’t convince Mainers otherwise. In November, Maine voters will be able to rank their choices for president in a historic first. Today is a good day for voters and for democracy.”

Committee Treasurer Cara Brown McCormick said Maine will now continue to lead the nation in election reforms aimed at “making our politics more civil and more democratic.”

The committee also acknowledged that Dunlap and his staff were under enormous pressure to complete the validation process within the allowed 30-day timeframe, given that state primaries were delayed to Tuesday because of the pandemic.

“We also want to thank Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and his staff for their thorough review of the petitions, especially given the incredible amount of work involved with the statewide election that was held yesterday,” Kate Knox, an attorney for the committee said in a prepared statement.

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