AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Monday that ranked-choice voting will be used in the June 12 primary after his office certified a people’s veto effort that thwarted the Legislature’s attempt to cancel the election system approved by voters in 2016.
Dunlap deemed 66,687 of the approximately 77,000 submitted signatures to be valid, which means two things: Mainers will use ranked-choice voting in the primary and concurrently vote on whether to continue ranked-choice voting in the future.
The people’s veto attempt certified Monday would nullify a law passed last year by legislators that at the time was seen as a death knell for ranked-choice voting.
Instead, supporters of ranked-choice voting were able to exceed the people’s veto threshold for signatures in less than 90 days — but the long-term fate of the system depends on the June vote.
“This is going to be a real learning experience, and hopefully it’s a positive one,” said Dunlap. “That’s our goal, to make this run smoothly.”
In ranked-choice elections, voters choose multiple candidates in order of their preference. If no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the total vote, the last-place finisher is eliminated and the second choices of voters who cast ballots for that candidate are used in a retabulation. The process repeats until a winner emerges with a majority of the votes.
Outstanding questions remain, including how Dunlap will cover the estimated cost. The Legislature’s fiscal office said that could be up to $1.1 million a year, but Dunlap said Monday it probably won’t cost that much, at least upfront. He couldn’t estimate how much his office will need for this June’s and November’s votes until he firms up a plan for issues such as who will secure and transport ballots and what the schedule will be for subsequent rounds of counting if the first tallies don’t produce winners.
Dunlap said high-speed tabulating machines would be used in a central location and that putting machines capable of ranked-choice voting in every town and city isn’t possible for the primary, but possibly for the future.
“Assuming the voters support the veto in June,” Dunlap said. “If they don’t, we’re back to where we were yesterday and everything’s on hold.”
Dick Woodbury, a former independent state senator from Yarmouth who chairs the political committee that convinced Maine voters in 2016 to endorse the first-in-the-nation system, said he expects voters to be “so appreciative” of the chance to use ranked-choice voting that support will rise.
“I think that we’re modeling a reform that could do a lot to improve politics for the country,” he said.
Current law, enacted in October, states that the system won’t be implemented unless the Maine Constitution is amended by December 2021 to allow the method for gubernatorial and legislative general elections. If it isn’t, ranked-choice voting would be stricken from Maine statutes.
Now that the signatures are verified, Mainers will vote June 12 on the people’s veto, which would implement the system for congressional races in the November general election, but not gubernatorial and legislative elections.
As a backup to their signature drive, supporters — including eight Democrats running for office at the time of its submission — filed a lawsuit in Kennebec County Superior Court to ensure the method is in place for the primary.
Dunlap said his office intends to write and adopt rules for the handling, retrieval and tabulation of ballots by the end of March while acquiring high-speed tabulators and software in the same timeframe. Dunlap hopes to have ballots laid out by April 13 and instruction materials produced for municipal election officers and voters by May 4. He said it will be crucial for all parties to understand the rules and schedules before the election, including the challenge and recount processes, “so people have faith in our election system.”
Ranked-choice voting is used in countries around the world and in at least 11 U.S. cities, including Portland, but Maine would be the first place to use it on a statewide basis.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.
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