AUGUSTA — A potential fix to the constitutional concerns raised about Maine’s new ranked-choice voting system faltered in the Maine House on Friday.

The 78-68 House vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to present voters with a proposed constitutional amendment on a ranked-choice voting process that fundamentally changes the way Maine voters elect legislators, governors and members of Congress. Lawmakers voted largely along party lines, with Democrats supporting sending the constitutional amendment to voters and Republicans opposing the measure.

Although 52 percent of Mainers voted to approve switching to a ranked-choice system last November – making Maine the first state to do so – the Supreme Judicial Court issued a unanimous advisory opinion last month that said the process would violate Maine’s Constitution. That has left lawmakers with two major options: either repeal the ranked-choice voting law approved by voters, or give voters a chance to change Maine’s Constitution to address the court’s concerns.

A repeal bill is still pending in the Legislature and would require a lower threshold to pass. But without legislative action in some form, the ranked-choice voting system would remain in place until it faces a likely court challenge following an election.

Supporters of the proposed constitutional amendment, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Cathy Breen of Falmouth, said lawmakers must “respect the will” of the more than 580,000 voters who supported Question 5 on last November’s ballot.

“Right now, in this moment, we have an opportunity to address the concerns of the Law Court and uphold the will of the voters at the same time,” said Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop. “I will not address the merits of ranked-choice voting here today for those arguments were considered during the debate on Question 5 over the past several months. The election results have settled that debate and what we must do here today is respect those results and move this election forward.”

But opponents of the bill, L.D. 1624, repeated arguments that voters were misled about the constitutionality of the process last year.

“I don’t feel it’s the will of the people when they are not fully informed,” said Rep. Dwayne Prescott, R-Waterboro.

But Rep. Kent Ackley, an independent from Monmouth, said not allowing Mainers to fix the constitutional concerns would be an effort “to turn our backs on a legal and binding decision made in a sacred place: the Maine voting booth.”

“It could deny the outcome of a referendum and certainly it would give fodder to those who say our system of government is rigged,” Ackley said.

Maine became the first state to adopt ranked-choice voting last year, although the system has been used on the local level, including in Portland, Maine’s largest city. Under the new system, voters would rank candidates for the Legislature, governor and Congress 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. That distinction – between plurality and majority – was at the heart of the Law Court’s advisory opinion saying that the process was unconstitutional.

The House sent the proposed constitutional amendment back to the Republican-controlled Senate, which also is deeply divided on the issue.

A separate bill that would repeal the ranked-choice voting bill altogether is still pending and could be revived in the Senate. Unlike the proposed constitutional amendment, the repeal bill only requires a simple majority for passage. But that would require picking up some Democratic votes in the House, where Democrats and independents who typically vote with the party hold a narrow majority over Republicans.

The issue faces additional votes in the House and Senate next week as lawmakers attempt to wrap up the 2017 legislative session.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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