AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills said Friday she would delay action on a bill passed by Maine lawmakers last month to expand ranked-choice voting to presidential elections and allow it to go into law in January, allowing its use in the 2020 general elections but not next year’s primaries.
The move still amounts to a historic expansion of the method that Maine became the first state to use after voters authorized ranked-choice voting in a 2016 referendum. Conflicts with the Maine Constitution limited its use in 2018 to congressional elections and state primaries. The method decided the race in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District won by U.S. Rep. Jared Golden.
Legislative Republicans who oppose ranked-choice voting have blocked pushes for constitutional amendments to expand its use, but advocates eyed the presidential change as a priority in the Democratic-led Legislature this year because it did not need a constitutional fix.
Lawmakers adjourned for regular business in June while leaving the bill one Senate vote shy of passage. But the Legislature returned for a special session focused on bond proposals last month, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, the sponsor of the bill to allow ranked-choice voting in presidential primaries and general election, brought it to that vote.
That was over the objection of Mills, a Democrat who has supported ranked-choice voting but wanted the one-day session focused only on bonds and other administration proposals. Mills was tightlipped on it until Friday, the day she had to decide whether to sign, veto or hold the bill.
On Friday, she said in a news release she would hold it until the Legislature returns to Augusta in January and allow it to pass then without her signature. That would push the law’s effective date past the March 3 presidential primaries.
That move would allow it in next year’s presidential general elections and in presidential primaries after 2020. The Democratic National Committee is requiring candidates in its presidential primaries to get at least 15 percent of votes in states to qualify for a share of a pool of nominating delegates.
Mills noted in a letter to legislators that the bill included no money to pay for increased costs of each election, saying there were “serious questions about the cost and logistics of ranked-choice voting” in those races saying she was “giving the Legislature an opportunity to appropriate funds” for future ranked-choice elections as it sees fit.
“My experience with ranked-choice voting is that it gives voters a greater voice, and it encourages civility among campaigns and candidates at a time when such civility is sorely needed,” Mills said.
Maine will be the first state to use ranked-choice voting in a presidential election. Under the method, voters choose candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate gets a majority of first-place votes, the last-place finisher is eliminated and voters’ second choices are redistributed. The process continues until the winner has more than 50 percent.
Since Maine is one of two states to allocate Electoral College votes by congressional district, the state will run three ranked-choice races at once — one statewide, one in the one in the liberal 1st Congressional District and one in the more conservative 2nd District. The statewide winner will get two of Maine’s four electors and each district winner gets one.
A 2018 recount in the 2nd District race stretched into December, near the normal date of the Electoral College in presidential years. Jacob Posik, a spokesman for the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, which opposes the method, said the “rest of the country could be waiting for Maine” under the law.
Cara McCormick, who chairs a group that led the passage of the law in 2016, said in a statement that the change means Maine “continue to light the path towards making our union more perfect.”