Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, speaks about efforts to repeal ranked-choice voting while standing next to boxes containing signed petitions near the State House, Monday, June 15, 2020, in Augusta, Maine. The party said it has the signatures to force a November referendum on a 2019 law expanding the method to presidential elections. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The latest expansion of ranked-choice voting in Maine may have to wait after the state Republican Party said Monday it has the signatures to force a November referendum on a 2019 law expanding the method to presidential elections.

Monday was the deadline for the party to submit more than 63,000 signatures to Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office. If the office determines enough signatures are valid, the measure will be on the ballot this fall. Getting the initiative on the ballot automatically delays the law, meaning ranked-choice voting would not be used in the 2020 presidential election.

The latest people’s veto effort concerns a bill passed by the Legislature last year expanding ranked-choice voting to presidential primaries and general elections. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, opted not to sign the bill, instead allowing it to become law without her signature at the end of the legislative session this year in a move that kept it from affecting 2020 primaries.

The referendum would also be the third time in five years that Maine voters have had the opportunity to weigh in on ranked-choice voting. Voters first approved the system in 2016 and turned back a legislative effort to delay it in 2018. It now applies to state primaries and all congressional elections with three or more candidates.

The Maine Republican Party began collecting signatures in February for their effort to repeal the law, though their window was shortened when the Legislature adjourned a month early due to the coronavirus. The pandemic also complicated signature collecting, though the party received “essential” status for its work on the referendum from the Mills administration in May.

On Monday, Republicans said they have collected 72,000 signatures. Jason Savage, the party’s executive director, said the effort succeeded “pretty much against all odds” amid restrictions. He noted that ranked-choice voting advocates faced little organized opposition in past campaigns.

“This is going to be the first time that ranked-choice voting faces a fair fight on the ballot with a simple question and people are going to repeal it,” he said.

The people’s veto process requires groups aiming to overturn a law to collect more than 63,000 signatures within 90 days of the law’s effective date. Dunlap’s office has 30 days to review the signatures collected by the Maine Republican Party and rule on whether the effort qualifies.

The referendum will also have to pass a legal hurdle. In April, ranked-choice voting advocates filed a lawsuit seeking to block the referendum, arguing that the law had already taken effect, which would invalidate the people’s veto process. That litigation is still pending.

David Farmer, a spokesperson for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, which pushed the 2016 law and filed the suit, said if the challenge makes the ballot, he is “confident that voters will make the same decision they have in the past” on the method and uphold the law.

Ranked-choice has been partisan in Maine after Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District, beat Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin in 2018 despite trailing after the first round of voting. He picked up a majority of later-round votes from two liberal-leaning independents.

Exit polling in 2018 found that a narrow majority of Maine voters wanted to expand the use of ranked-choice voting, but the issue was split along party lines with 81 percent of Democrats supporting expansion with 72 percent of Republicans wanting to stop using the method altogether.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...