AUGUSTA, Maine — The organizers of a petition drive to create a ranked choice voting system in Maine said Monday they are close to achieving their 61,000-signature goal but are still weighing the timing of when they’ll put the question to statewide referendum.

Although there hasn’t been a tally since a concentrated signature gathering push over the weekend, former independent state Sen. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth estimated the group has nearly 60,000 signatures.

The Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting set a self-imposed deadline of Wednesday to submit signatures to town clerks throughout Maine for verification. If successful, it would be among the quickest signature-gathering efforts in recent history to force a statewide referendum. The initiative benefitted from more than 36,000 signatures on Election Day alone.

In ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference, in essence voting for more than one candidate. If none of the candidates receive a majority of the initial vote total — at least 50 percent — the lowest performing candidate is eliminated. The ballots with that candidate listed as a first preference are recounted with the second-choice votes tallied and third choice, if necessary, until one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.

According to Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, and Woodbury, who are leading the petition drive, the haste is necessary so the committee will be free to make a decision about whether to place the question before Maine voters this year or in 2016, when there will be greater voter turnout in a presidential election year. The deadline to submit signatures to towns and cities for a 2015 ballot bid is Monday, Jan. 12, though the petitions are valid for a year, meaning the referendum could be held until 2016.

Woodbury said there are valid arguments for both timelines. Delaying the referendum until 2016 would make way for an extended public education process while putting it on the 2015 ballot could capitalize on enthusiasm that has resulted in some 60,000 signatures gathered in about three months.

“This is a reform that we want people to understand when they vote on it,” Woodbury said. “Having more time for that could be helpful.”

Bills to create ranked choice voting have failed in the Legislature in recent years, amid arguments that implementing the system would be too expensive and confusing to voters. Russell said she has reserved a “placeholder” bill title for the legislative session that begins Wednesday but that she would rescind it to make way for the citizen-initiated referendum.

“We’ve already had an overwhelming response,” Russell said. “People in Maine are tired of voting their fears and want to vote based on their hopes. That’s what this campaign is really about.”

The proposal, in its current form, would affect elections for Legislature, governor and Maine’s congressional delegation but would not affect county and municipal-level seats.

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.