AUGUSTA, Maine — Attorney General Janet Mills has found that the citizen-initiated ranked-choice voting system likely to be contemplated by voters in November poses problems that would require a state constitutional amendment to fix.
Former state Sen. Richard Woodbury, a member of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, said other legal experts disagree with Mills, whose March 4 memo came in response to Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau’s request that she weigh in its constitutionality.
Mills identified two basic problems with the proposal:
— That the Constitution allows candidates in Maine to win elections by plurality, which means garnering more votes than all other candidates but not necessarily a majority of all votes.
— The Constitution calls for votes to be counted by municipal officials, not through a multiple-round, computerized tallying of voters’ preferences.
The proposed legislation “does raise significant constitutional concerns, and it may not be possible to implement ranked-choice voting as envisioned by this legislation without amending the Maine Constitution,” wrote Mills.
Mills’ opinion echoes concerns that have already been raised by others, including Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.
Woodbury disagreed and said the initiative has been well vetted.
“Any law can be subject to interpretation and constitutional challenges,” said Woodbury. “Laws are constitutional until there is that kind of challenge. We think it’s constitutional.”
Supporting Woodbury’s position, according to the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, are Peter Pitegoff, former dean of the University of Maine School of Law; Jamie Kilbreth, former Maine chief deputy attorney general; and Tim Shannon, a partner at Verrill Dana.
“The current ranked-choice voting proposal squares with the text and history of the Maine Constitution,” said Shannon in a written statement.
Ranked-choice voting would allow voters to rank candidates for governor, the Legislature and members of Congress in order of preference in multi-candidate races. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, second- and third-place choices would come into play.
Though the initiative arose from a citizen petition, it must first go to the Legislature, which can implement it as-is or ratify it for the statewide ballot. The Legislature also could devise a competing measure that would appear alongside this question on the ballot, along with a “none of the above” option.
Woodbury said implementation of the measure wouldn’t be until 2018, which is a delay that was included on purpose.
“If this is a reform that a majority of voters think is right to happen, there are still two years to work through the exact implementation details,” said Woodbury, who said implementing ranked-choice voting would force wider agreement among the electorate and their representatives that could help ease partisan gridlock.
“I really believe this is the most important issue that I have ever worked on because of its potential to improve our system in a number of areas,” said Woodbury.
LD 1557 was indefinitely postponed in the House in January and awaits action in the Senate before it can be sent to referendum.