AUGUSTA — Maine residents could be ranking the candidates for governor and Congress when they vote in the June primaries even though the Legislature passed a bill Monday to delay a ranked-choice voting system.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said Tuesday that supporters of ranked-choice voting could block the bill to delay and repeal the law if they can gather enough signatures within 90 days of the Legislature’s adjournment, expected in early November. That would force another referendum vote – a so-called “people’s veto” – on the matter, likely during the June primary elections that would be the first test of ranked-choice voting.

After failed attempts earlier this year to fix the ballot question law, the Legislature passed a bill Monday delaying the shift to ranked-choice voting while adding a poison pill to kill the citizen-backed law in 2021 if the Maine Constitution is not changed.

The bill to delay ranked-choice voting passed by a five-vote margin in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and is awaiting action by Gov. Paul LePage.

The Republican governor will have 10 days to sign, veto or allow the bill to become law without his signature. Once that happens, sometime around Nov. 4, and the Legislature adjourns from its current special session, supporters will have 90 days to collect 61,121 signatures from registered Maine voters – 10 percent of the votes cast in the last election for governor, in 2014 – to put a people’s veto on the June ballot. Once those signatures are verified, the law delaying and repealing the ballot question law would be put on hold, Dunlap said.

If the group is successful in its signature drive, Dunlap said Tuesday that Mainers likely will be using a ranked-choice voting system in the June 2018 primaries when the state’s recognized political parties select their candidates for governor and the U.S. congressional races that are up for election. It is also likely during the same election that unenrolled voters, who normally can’t vote in primaries because they don’t belong to a party, will get to cast ballots on whether to rebuff the Legislature’s recent delay and repeal of ranked-choice voting.

Under the ranked-choice system, voters would rank candidates in order of preference. If no one had more than 50 percent of the vote after the first count, 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 candidates, and the ballots would be retabulated. The process would continue until one candidate had a clear majority and is declared the winner.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued an advisory opinion in May that found that the system does not conform with the state constitution’s current requirement that elections for governor and the Legislature are to be decided by a “plurality.”

Peter Steele, a spokesman for LePage, would not say Tuesday whether the governor was going to sign or veto the bill, but reiterated LePage would likely take his full 10 days to decide the matter. That delay could impact the effort for a people’s veto because supporters of ranked-choice voting might not be able to collect voter signatures during the Nov. 7 election.

Kyle Bailey, a spokesman for the Committee on Ranked Choice Voting, the political action committee that successfully campaigned to change the voting system in 2016, winning with 52 percent support and nearly 400,000 votes, said the group’s legal team was preparing a petition to seek a people’s veto.

Still an active PAC, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting raised and spent just over $400,000 in 2016 on its ballot drive, with most of donations coming from Maine.

“We were about as grassroots as you could get in terms of the way we were financed,” Bailey said Tuesday. He believes Maine voters likewise would support a campaign for a people’s veto.

The last successful people’s veto in Maine overturned a law passed by the Legislature in 2011 that would have ended same-day voter registration on Election Day. The repeal was approved with 59 percent of voters rejecting the law passed by the Legislature and signed by LePage. Signatures for the repeal that year were gathered in less than 45 days.

In remarks on WVOM radio Tuesday, Bailey said he had little doubt voters would side with ranked-choice advocates. He said the Legislature failed to work out a compromise that would have allowed voters to use ranked-choice voting in the elections where there were no concerns raised by the court.

“There was a reasonable proposal on the table, but Democrats and Republicans couldn’t even get around the table to have a conversation about it,” Bailey said. “We have a government of, by and for us, and if it ain’t working for you, then we can change it. This is our democracy, it belongs to us – it belongs to we the people and it is time for us to take it back.”

Some conservative opponents have dismissed ranked-choice voting as a reaction to LePage’s election in 2010 and in 2014. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers also have proposed changing the voting system following the election of governors who garnered less than 50 percent support. All of Maine’s last three governors have won office with less than a majority of votes.

And while Republicans have steadily rejected the most recent voter-backed law as being unconstitutional, based on an advisory opinion by the state’s high court, Democrats largely have backed either moving forward with the parts of the law that are not in question or pushing a constitutional ballot question out to voters to decide.

Earlier this year, Democrats voted in a block to send another question to voters asking them to amend the state’s constitution to clearly allow ranked-choice voting. The measure needed at least two-thirds support and Republicans opposed it.

At least five of the nine Democratic candidates running for governor in 2018 said they wanted ranked-choice voting, including Rep. Diane Russell, Betsy Sweet, former House Speaker Mark Eves, state Sen. Mark Dion and former Sen. James Boyle.

“Some of my colleagues are unwilling to accept that the voters made this choice and the game is over,” Dion said. “It’s a bit arrogant for a candidate to express favoritism for one system or another.”

Dion, an attorney, said it’s not accurate to say that the law is unconstitutional because the legal opinion from the state’s highest court has not been tested in a court of law yet.

He said he was trying to answer a wave of questions about the Legislature’s action Tuesday from his constituents. “And I really don’t have a good answer for them,” Dion said.

Also weighing in on the Legislature’s decision was State Treasurer Terry Hayes, an independent candidate for governor who said she supports the people’s veto effort.

“It’s easy to be cynical, but we need you,” Hayes said to ranked-choice advocates. “Sometimes it takes longer than it should to get good policy outcomes, but it’s worth our time and energy.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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