It looks like the issue of ranked-choice voting will once again be on the statewide ballot this November, for the third time in four years. This ongoing fight over how Maine conducts some — but not all — of its elections has reached the ridiculous point where people can start ranking their preferred (or least preferred) votes on the subject. Which has us wondering, when and how will this seemingly perpetual back and forth end?
The Maine Republican Party is spearheading the current referendum effort, which seeks to overturn a law passed by the Legislature extending ranked-choice voting to presidential elections in the state. On June 15, the party submitted 68,000 signatures in support of this people’s veto, with approximately 63,000 signatures needed. This is an impressive number considering the signatures were gathered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the Maine Secretary of State’s office still needs to certify the signatures before the people’s veto can go on the ballot, and a court challenge from ranked-choice backers lingers, there seems to be a good chance that voters will be weighing in on ranked-choice voting once again in November. If enough signatures are valid, it will put the presidential ranked-choice voting law on hold and prevent it from being used this election.
Maine voters have twice signaled their support for ranked-choice voting, which we opposed both times. If Mainers express support a third time, there really should be little doubt about how they feel on this issue.
But if voters support the people’s veto? Well, then an already complicated picture gets even murkier.
A lot of the continued ranked-choice complications can be traced back to the original referendum vote in 2016, when Maine voters approved using ranked-choice voting in “U.S. Senate, Congress, Governor, State Senate and State Representative” races. But there was a catch: as the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said in a subsequent, unanimous advisory opinion, that ranked-choice voting and its majority requirement “is in direct contradiction” to plurality provisions in the Maine Constitution. These constitutional concerns did not materialize out of thin air. Both Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and then-Attorney General Janet Mills raised concerns before the 2016 election.
As a result of the continued conflicts with the state constitution, ranked-choice voting is used in U.S. House and Senate races and in gubernatorial primaries, but not in races for the state Legislature or the general election for governor. We called it a recipe for confusion in 2018, and that confusion remains.
While the Republican organizational efforts to get this on the ballot were impressive, some of the party’s arguments have been less so.
Despite rulings from a federal judge in Bangor and the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals against former Rep. Bruce Poliquin and several of his supporters who unsuccessfully tried to challenge the constitutionality of Maine’s ranked-choice voting system, the Republican Party is doubling down on some of those arguments.
For example, an email from party chair Demi Kouzounas claims that ranked-choice voting “allows some voters to get multiple votes while some only get one vote.” Judge Lance Walker already exposed the flaws of this argument when he ruled against Poliquin and the other plaintiffs who voted for him and did not rank other candidates.
“Plaintiffs insist that their votes received less weight. However, Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that their votes received less weight,” Walker wrote in his December 2018 decision.
“Plaintiffs’ votes were not rendered irrelevant or diluted by this process,” he continued.
Beyond flawed arguments, we’d like to see consistency in how we use or don’t use ranked-choice voting in Maine. If we’re going to continue to employ this system, it should be applied to all the elections promised in the original referendum question. That would take the Legislature and Maine voters signing off on a constitutional amendment, an effort requiring two thirds support from lawmakers that has failed thus far.
If both sides in this debate are so confident that they reflect the will of Maine people, the best and clearest test would be to pass such an amendment in the Legislature, and then let voters decide. If a majority of Maine voters want to keep using this system, such an amendment would allow the state to fully embrace it and ditch the current patchwork application. If not, that should be a sign that Maine’s experiment with ranked-choice voting hasn’t been a successful one. Either way, it could help end the current limbo and confusion.