HARPSWELL — Later this month, the Maine Legislature will hold a special session. Ranked-choice voting is expected to be a major item on its agenda.

Unhappy about elections for governor won with less than 50 percent of the ballots cast in multi-candidate races, last year Maine voters adopted ranked-choice voting.

In some states, runoff elections are used to choose majority winners. Most states use a plurality system, meaning that the candidate with the most votes wins even if he or she does not receive a majority of votes cast. Maine is the first state with ranked-choice selection.

Under this system, voters get the chance to record their second- and third-choice preferences, with those backup ballots being used, if necessary, to create a majority vote for one candidate.

However, justices of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court advised that the law is not in line with the Maine Constitution, which provides for plurality winners. That meant ranked-choice voting could not fix the problem of electing governors unless the state constitution were amended.

Ranked-choice voting serves two purposes. First, it replaces the plurality system. Second, it provides a mechanism for producing a majority winner. The backup votes are distributed and redistributed to produce a majority winner. In deciding on your vote, if you wanted absolute majority results, you accepted ranked-choice voting.

The Legislature may consider if the Maine Constitution would allow the new process to be used for U.S. Congress and Senate races and party primaries, though not for state offices. That move would be meant to keep faith with the voters.

But a piecemeal approach would not solve the problem that brought about ranked-choice voting. And opponents could try to tie up the new partial process in court. Some critics believe ranked-choice voting might violate the principle of “one person, one vote,” leading to a possible federal court challenge.

To settle the question for all elections on a timely basis, the Legislature could take another approach: It could separate the two questions inherent in the ranked-choice voting referendum. The first step would be to propose a simple constitutional amendment eliminating the provisions mandating plurality winners. That way, without regard to the voting method, Mainers could decide if they prefer a majority result.

On the same ballot, voters could be asked to select the voting procedure to be used if the amendment were adopted. Then, if the amendment passed, Maine would have selected either ranked-choice voting or a runoff to reach a majority outcome. If it failed, Maine would keep its current plurality method with possible minority winners.

This concept of splitting the vote allows for people who want majority, not plurality, elections to make that choice separately from determining how it would be done. On a question of this importance, Maine voters deserve a clear chance to consider amending the state constitution.

If the voters want to replace plurality elections with majority votes, they would then choose the method, a choice that was not previously available to them. They would vote either for the ranked-choice voting law or for a bill laying out the runoff system. A runoff model could easily be drafted based on what 11 other states do.

Each of these decisions, representing major changes in the historic Maine political system, deserves to be made independently and on its own merits. The state ballot could contain a vote on the constitutional amendment, followed by a choice of the election method that would be applied if the amendment passed. Because both decisions could appear on a single ballot, not separated by months or years, it could be completed before the November 2018 elections.

An alternative could be to place the partial application of ranked-choice voting, allowing for its use in federal elections and party primaries, on the ballot as an alternative to the amendment route. That risks being confusing, but it is possible.

This two-part procedure may be opposed by some proponents of ranked-choice voting for whom a partial and perhaps interim result is preferable to taking the risk of facing the voters again. That’s understandable.

But when we get to matters relating to the Maine Constitution, the moment is ripe for the people to decide. Though the attorney general warned voters about constitutional problems before the ranked-choice vote, the advice was ignored.

The constitutional issue can no longer be ignored. Now is the time to face up to the majority voting issue problem in the Maine Constitution and resolve it rather than putting a patch on it.

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