AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers will make a final effort in the closing days of the legislative session to act on a citizen-backed ballot law that gives Maine a first-in-the-nation ranked-choice voting system.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Kent Ackley, an independent from Monmouth, would allow ranked-choice voting for party primaries and Maine’s congressional seats. But it would set aside the part of the law, which was supported by 51 percent of the voters in November, that calls for ranked-choice voting in general elections for the Legislature and the governor’s office.

Under the new law, voters will rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the first-place 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. The balloting system is mostly intended to ensure a majority winner in races with more than two candidates.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued an advisory opinion in May that said the state’s constitution requires that legislators and the governor be elected by a plurality, and elections for those offices conducted under a ranked-choice system would likely be challenged in court, potentially invalidating the results and forcing a new election.

An effort to repeal the law in its entirety failed in late June, setting the stage for what could be a legally messy election cycle in 2018, if a candidate who lost a ranked-choice election went to court to contest the outcome.

Ackley’s bill, accepted Wednesday by a unanimous vote of the Legislature’s Legislative Council, which has to approve any late-session bills, probably won’t be voted on until early August. That’s when the Legislature is expected to return to take override votes on vetoes sent to them by Gov. Paul LePage.

“It seems to me like this is the best course forward to respect the will of the voters,” Ackley said Wednesday.

In its advisory opinion to the Legislature, the state’s high court suggested two solutions: either repeal the law or send a question out to voters to amend the state’s constitution to accommodate ranked-choice voting.

Ackley’s bill would be a third option. It would essentially put the constitutionally suspect provisions of the ranked-choice law on hold. A constitutional amendment to make those provisions viable would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, followed by a simple majority vote of Mainers at the ballot box.

Ackley’s bill may not fare well in the Legislature, where it faces both Democratic and Republican opponents. They have argued that creating a voting system that uses ranked-choice balloting for some races and not for others would be both costly and confusing. The bill also could be vetoed by the governor.

The legislative session, which is nearly over, will resume at 10 a.m. Thursday for the first time since July 4, when lawmakers enacted a $7 billion, two-year budget, ending a three-day partial government shutdown.

Lawmakers on Thursday will vote on several LePage vetoes as well as a state borrowing package that also will have to be ratified by voters in November. The details of that so-called bonding package remained unclear late Wednesday, but part of the borrowing is expected to be for highways and bridges.

LePage is also asking lawmakers to approve a $100 million bond that would be used to create a student debt relief program to be administered by the Finance Authority of Maine.

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

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