AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate tabled a bill Wednesday that would have repealed a citizens initiative passed in November that made Maine the first state in the nation to adopt a statewide ranked-choice voting system.

Senators then voted unanimously, without a roll call tally, to give initial approval to a bill that would amend the Maine Constitution – if approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and by voters – to resolve issues with the new law identified by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Its advisory opinion in May found that parts of the new law violated the state constitution, which calls for candidates in races for the Legislature and the governor’s office to be elected by a plurality of voters – the most votes – and not necessarily a majority of voters – at least 50 percent – as they would be under a ranked-choice system.

But the opinion did not address ranked-choice voting in Maine’s federal elections or party primary elections, and supporters have argued the law should stand for those races while the Legislature and then voters decide if the constitution should be amended.

“Voters demanded election reform, and it’s our responsibility to ensure they get it,” Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, said in a prepared statement issued after the vote on the constitutional amendment bill. “Ranked-choice voting gives voters more choices, and encourages candidates to run campaigns that appeal to voters outside their normal base of support. And perhaps most importantly, it eliminates the ‘spoiler effect,’ giving voters the ability to cast their ballots for the candidate they truly prefer, not just the one they think has the best chance of winning.”

But those seeking to repeal the new law outright said two different systems for voting could be confusing for voters while discouraging voter turnout.

“I believe if we did it any other way it would result in confusion at the ballot box,” said Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon. Mason later said his state Senate district voted against the change last November, as did many other parts of Maine, and that his position represents those of his constituents.

Mason also said that the process of changing the state’s constitution should start in the Legislature and not be prompted by a need to fix parts of a law that were found unconstitutional by the courts.

“The way the constitution is amended does not start at the ballot box, it starts here in these bodies, in the Senate and in the House of Representatives,” he said.

The ranked-choice system fundamentally changes the way voters would select legislators, the governor and Maine’s four congressional delegates. Voters would rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate had more than 50 percent of votes, the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated. Voters who chose the eliminated candidate would have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidate, and the ballots would be retabulated. The process would continue until one candidate had a clear majority and was declared the winner.

But Maine’s Constitution calls for candidates to be selected by plurality, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, even if the vote total is less than a majority.

Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, who at first supported a repeal of the new law, said he had changed his mind. He said voters who approved the change in November should have a chance to fix the parts that were deemed unconstitutional by amending the constitution.

“We went to a lot of time and trouble to have the Maine Supreme Judicial Court rule on the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting, and they did,” said Carpenter, who is also a former state attorney general. “By that ruling they have directed us to this point on this day.”

The bill now heads to the Maine House of Representatives for further action, but whether it can muster the final two-thirds support it needs to eventually be sent to voters remains uncertain.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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