AUGUSTA — A last-minute attempt by Maine lawmakers to resolve some of the issues surrounding ranked-choice voting failed Thursday, leaving it up to the courts to decide the fate of the first-in-the-nation system.

A 17-17 vote on a joint order in the Maine Senate scuttled attempts by Democrats to resolve concerns that Republicans had raised about the ballot-box law adopted in a statewide referendum with 52 percent of the vote in 2016.

The joint order would have triggered a new bill to clarify that Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap is authorized to expend the funds necessary to conduct a ranked-choice primary. The bill also would have authorized Maine State Police, at Dunlap’s direction, to retrieve ballots as needed and return them to Augusta for a centralized tabulation by Dunlap – an additional step to determine winners in a ranked-choice vote.

The same doubts about legal conflicts that would have been addressed by the legislation are central to a legal complaint by the state Senate that is pending before Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy, who may ultimately send the question to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest court.

There were no new developments in the court case Thursday, but Murphy has said she intends to move as quickly as possible in hopes of getting a final ruling on the matter before April 13. Dunlap’s office has said that is necessary to provide enough time to print and distribute primary ballots for absentee voters and Mainers serving in the military overseas.

A ranked-choice election requires ballots that would allow voters to rank all the candidates in a race, from their preferred candidate to their least favorite.



In a traditional election, whoever gets the most votes wins, even if there are more than two candidates and no one gets 50 percent of the votes cast.

Under the ranked-choice system, voters select candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Voters who preferred the eliminated candidate would then have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidates, and the ballots would be retabulated. The process continues until one candidate has a clear majority of votes and is declared the winner.

The dispute over how to conduct the June elections has fallen largely along party lines, with Republicans arguing that legal conflicts would prevent use of ranked-choice voting and Democrats arguing that the will of the voters should be implemented.

The vote on the joint order Thursday in the Senate gained the support of a single Republican, state Sen. Thomas Saviello of Wilton. But State Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, was absent. The tie left the order essentially dead, although majority Democrats in the Maine House could propose a new joint order in hopes of reviving a legislative fix.

The proposed joint order, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, was not meant to be an endorsement of ranked-choice voting, Carpenter said, but a fix aimed at clarifying the primary process in June.


“Although I was not a supporter of ranked-choice voting at the outset, the Legislature now has a responsibility to implement the law and respect the will of the voters,” said Carpenter, a former Maine attorney general. “While I did not agree with the concerns expressed by the Senate president and his Republican colleagues earlier this week, I believe the best way to address these concerns is through the legislative process. I am deeply disappointed in the majority of my Republican colleagues for refusing to do this the right way.”

Earlier in the week, the Senate voted 21-13 to pass a Senate order directing Senate President Mike Thibodeau to seek legal action on the ranked-choice voting system, which Thibodeau did Wednesday in the form of a new complaint to Justice Murphy. Part of that Senate complaint centers on the separation of powers clause in the Maine Constitution that defines the separate but equal branches of government.

While the court action is pending, other Senate Democrats said the Legislature needs to make it clear that Dunlap is legally required to conduct the elections in June.

“Republican or Democrat – I defend what the secretary of state is obliged to do,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham. “I don’t want to jeopardize that person’s ability to carry out elections in the state.”

Diamond, a former secretary of state himself, added, “I worry that not passing this order would constitute an erosion of the secretary’s longtime authority.”

Dunlap helped trigger the last-minute turmoil when he cited some of the legal questions during testimony before the Legislature last week.


That led to an initial legal complaint filed in Kennebec County Superior Court. Murphy ruled Wednesday on that complaint, saying Dunlap’s office needs to proceed with implementing a ranked-choice election in the June primary. Within hours, attorneys were back before Murphy to argue the new Senate complaint.

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

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