AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills decided Friday to let a ranked-choice voting bill become law without her signature, meaning Maine will become the first state in the nation to use the balloting system in presidential elections.

However, because she released the bill without a signature, the law will not take effect in time for ranked-choice voting to be used in the presidential primaries in March.

In her memo to the Legislature released Friday afternoon, Mills said she was not signing the bill, in part, because lawmakers had failed to allocate money to cover the additional expense of a ranked-choice election and she hopes that they will do so in the next session of the Legislature starting in January.

“My experience with ranked-choice voting is that it gives voters a greater voice and it encourages civility among campaigns and candidates at a time when such civility is sorely needed,” Mills said in the prepared statement.

“At the same time, there are serious questions about the cost and logistics of ranked-choice voting, including collecting and transporting ballots from more than 400 towns in the middle of winter, and questions remain about the actual impact of this particular primary on the selection of delegates to party conventions.”

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has estimated it would have cost $100,000 to implement ranked-choice voting for the March primaries.

The bill’s backers wanted ranked-choice voting in both the presidential primary in March and the general presidential election in November 2020. The March primary will be the first under a new state law that replaces caucuses as the method political parties use to select nominees in Maine. How the parties choose to apportion their delegates to the national nominating conventions would remain the decision of party leaders at the state and national level.

While Maine Democrats wanted ranked-choice voting for their new primary, Mills’ decision to allow the bill to become law without her signature means it will not go into effect until 90 days after the next Legislative session adjourns, likely in May or April. That means the law won’t go on the books until July 2020 at the earliest.

“In the case of the presidential primary, the purpose is not to elect an individual or to choose electors for president, but to allow the party using the primary system to apportion delegates to its convention,” Mills said in the memo. “Even without this bill, however, the parties could still use ranked-choice voting, or some similar process, in the selection of delegates.”

Supporters of ranked-choice voting heralded the new law and praised lawmakers who ushered it through the process, but voiced some disappointment it would not be used in the March primary.

“Gov. Mills could have signed L.D. 1083 into law, but instead chose to hold the bill, thus Maine voters are unlikely to be able to rank their choices in the crowded March primary,” David Farmer, a spokesman for The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, said in a prepared statement. “With an unprecedented number of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, voters could be forced to pick just one and that’s too bad.”

Maine Republican Party officials said Friday night that they are “exploring their options” in the wake of the governor’s decision.

The party had gone to court in 2018 to try to avoid having to use ranked-choice voting in its primary election that June, but failed to get an injunction. A federal judge ruled that the party was unable to show that the voting system violated the party’s First Amendment rights.

“Ranked-choice voting in a November presidential election will be a time-consuming and expensive waste of time and taxpayer resources,” Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said Friday night.

A Maine Democratic Party official did not respond to a request for comment Friday night.

Voters statewide have twice supported ranked-choice voting, first approving the system in 2016 and then voting in a people’s veto to overturn a law passed by the Legislature in 2017 that would have repealed ranked-choice voting.

The law has seen legal scrutiny in both the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, which in an advisory opinion determined it could not be used in Maine’s statewide elections for the governor’s office or the Legislature, but allowed it to stand for federal elections in the primary. In 2018, a federal judge in Bangor ruled against former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, and a small group of Maine voters who challenged the law’s constitutionality after Poliquin lost to Democrat Jared Golden in a ranked-choice vote. Golden is currently seeking a second term in the seat.

Mills received the bill on Aug. 26 during a one-day special session of the Legislature and had until midnight Friday to decide whether she wanted to sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without her signature.

A veto likely would have killed the legislation because Republicans are staunchly opposed to ranked-choice voting and would ensure that the bill does not receive the two-thirds majority needed in the House and Senate to overturn a veto.

The ranked-choice process allows voters to rank contenders in races with three or more candidates in order of preference. If no one wins a majority after the first tally, election officials eliminate the last-place finisher from contention and redistribute that candidate’s votes based each voter’s second-choice ranking.

This process continues – with non-viable candidates being eliminated from the bottom up and their votes reallocated – until someone hits the threshold of 50 percent plus one vote. And that person is the winner.

Much of the focus had been on how the bill would affect the March presidential primary, which is likely to have a large number of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. The primary is unusual because it is not a traditional winner-take-all election. Instead, the results are used by the political parties to allocate delegates to the national conventions. Candidates can win one or more delegates depending on their share of the votes. There is no need to declare a winner or ensure that any candidate gets an outright majority of the votes.

But the bill also calls for the Maine Secretary of State’s Office to apply ranked-choice voting in November 2020. And, in theory, that could lead to multiple ranked-choice instant runoffs because of Maine’s unusual way of choosing presidents.

Maine is one of the two states – Nebraska the other – that splits its Electoral College votes based the outcome of the election in each of the state’s two congressional districts. Maine awards one electoral vote to the winner of each district and two for the overall statewide winner, a process outlined in the state’s constitution.

And while that division is unusual, it occurred in 2016 when Donald Trump won the vote in Maine’s 2nd District while losing statewide and in the state’s more Democratic 1st District. Trump was awarded one of Maine’s four Electoral College votes and Democrat Hillary Clinton was awarded three.

Under the ranked-choice law, presidential elections in Maine could feature multiple ranked-choice runoffs.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in either of the state’s two U.S. congressional districts or statewide, ranked-choice tabulations would take place to determine the winner of each to allow the state to apportion its four Electoral College votes.

Dunlap’s spokeswoman, Kristen Muszynski, said the Secretary of State’s Office was still determining one of two ways it might apply the bill if multiple tabulations are needed in a presidential general election.

She said the state could tabulate the ballots for each congressional district and then run the statewide tabulation, or it could work with the state’s vendor to write an algorithm so all the tabulations can be done at one time. The cost to the state is unknown.

Maine was the first state to implement ranked-choice voting in statewide primary races and federal elections, in 2018. So far the process has been applied in only two statewide contests – the 2018 Democratic primary for the governor, won by Mills, and in the 2018 general election contest for Maine’s 2nd District race, which was won by Democratic challenger Jared Golden after a ranked-choice runoff against incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin.


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