AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee was at odds Monday over the future of a new voter-approved voting method that Maine’s highest court advised runs afoul of the Maine Constitution for some elections.
The Legislature’s joint veterans and legal affairs committee could not agree on a path forward for independent Rep. Kent Ackley’s bill to bring the 2016 ranked-choice voting law into compliance with the Maine Constitution. The committee’s divided votes mean that lawmakers will have a variety of options to consider — including delaying the law — when they return for an Oct. 23 special session.
Maine last year became the first state in the country to pass ranked-choice voting, a method that allows voters to rank their candidate choices from first to last. Candidates with the fewest first-place votes are eliminated in an instant runoff until one person has a majority. Some opponents of Republican Gov. Paul LePage — who is term-limited and can’t seek a third term — have blamed his election on the impact of three-way races and say allowing residents to rank their ballot choices could reduce the effect of having a third so-called “spoiler” candidate taking votes away from the other two.
The justices of Maine’s highest court in May issued an advisory opinion that ranked-choice voting is unconstitutional for general elections for the Legislature and governor. Lawmakers had requested the non-binding opinion.
Ackley’s bill would only implement ranked-choice voting for presidential and congressional elections, and primaries for statewide offices. Some lawmakers have called such a split system too confusing for candidates and voters alike.
Dozens of ranked-choice voting supporters on Monday called such concern insulting. Ackley warned lawmakers that they should not delay the voting law or repeal it. “We will be undermining the voters’ faith in the power of their vote, their faith in self-governance,” he said.
Legislative leaders have said it’s urgent that the Legislature deal with the new voting system’s constitutional issues ahead of key 2018 races for governor and the Legislature. Lawmakers have lacked support in the House and Senate to start the process of amending the Constitution to allow ranked-choice voting for all elections. Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau has said leaving the law alone until it’s challenged in court would “create chaos.”
About 52 percent of Maine voters approved the ranked-choice voting referendum last November.
Saco resident Cushing Samp said lawmakers must pass Ackley’s bill and respect the will of voters.
“Call me stupid, call me naive, but it never occurred to me that the Legislature might spit in the face of the voters,” said Samp, who did volunteer work for the ranked-choice voting campaign.
Republicans have said LePage was re-elected by a historic number of Mainers, and that out-of-state special interests spent thousands of dollars to push ranked-choice voting. “This is just another way for sore losers to try and overturn election results they don’t like,” LePage said last year.
Maine Heritage Policy Center analyst Jacob Posik called for lawmakers to kill the “costly and unworkable” ranked-choice voting law.
“The premise that Maine voters asked for ranked-choice voting in the first place is an illusion,” he said, referring to outside involvement.