October 14, 2019
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How Joshua Chamberlain’s ghost struck down ranked-choice voting

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A woman cycles by the statue of Joshua Chamberlain in front of the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick.

PORTLAND, Maine — The ghost of election chaos past, quelled by former governor and civil war hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, figured prominently into the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s unanimous opinion that ranked-choice voting conflicts with the state constitution.

The decision issued Tuesday mentions Chamberlain three times, which is the same amount of ink given to the legislative leaders and attorneys posing the question to the justices.

The justices latched onto Chamberlain’s charge of the Augusta police force during a tense 12-day period in 1880, when the results of Maine’s gubernatorial and legislative elections were in doubt.

“The state of Maine is faced with potential uncertainty in its election process and we cannot ignore the historical ramifications of previous election upheaval,” the justices wrote, fearing the delay, expense and dangers of contested elections.

Focus on that historical moment echoed the brief filed by the House Republican caucus and Maine Heritage Policy Center and earlier concerns from Maine’s attorney general and secretary of state.

[ How an 1880 Maine insurrection could sink ranked-choice voting]

To end that tense period, the same court speaking Tuesday ultimately had to step in to certify the election results and seat the government. In their opinion, the justices raised concern about ranked-choice results facing a similar legal dispute in the wake of an actual election.

The justices elaborated to say just how they would see that crisis play out.

In simple terms, the state constitution calls for the winner of a plurality of the vote to be declared the winner of the election. The ranked-choice voting law requires a majority before declaring a winner.

That conflict could create different results, the justices wrote, if a candidate who wins a plurality does not end up winning a majority after additional rounds of voting under the new law.

In their ruling Tuesday, the justices of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court expressed no interest in serving as referees in such a disputed election, or finding out who, in such a remake, would be cast as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

 



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