AUGUSTA — Maine voters in November could be asked if they want to keep a new law that applies ranked-choice voting to presidential elections.

A campaign headed by the Maine Republican Party turned in more than 72,000 signatures Monday calling for a “people’s veto” of the 2019 measure passed by the Legislature that expands the use of ranked-choice voting to presidential elections. The bill became law without  Gov. Janet Mills’ signature.

“Collecting more than 72,000 plus signatures in the midst of a pandemic and statewide lock-down that greatly reduced our capacity to collect signatures is a historic feat,” Maine Republican Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas said in a prepared statement. “Completing this task with only 64 days of signature gathering is a true testament to the dedication of our team and amazing volunteers and the amount of energy Mainers have to restore the principle of one person, one vote in our election process.”

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap’s office now has 30 days to determine whether the petitions include 63,607 valid signatures of registered Maine voters, the threshold for qualifying for the November ballot. If the petitions qualify, ranked-choice voting will not apply in this November’s presidential election.

The campaign still faces a legal challenge brought by the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting 2020, a citizens group that supports the ranked-choice process. The committee has filed suit against Dunlap, arguing that he violated the law when he approved the petitions for circulation because the Maine Constitution prohibits using the people’s veto process once a law has gone into effect.

“Maine voters have twice voted for ranked-choice voting at the ballot box, and we are confident that they will do so for a third time this fall if necessary,” said Cara McCormick, treasurer for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting 2020. “Voters want more choice and more voice in our elections and in our democracy, and not less.”

McCormick also promised scrutiny of the petitions turned in Monday. “We will carefully check the signatures that have been turned in, and we will continue to work through the courts to challenge the inappropriate signature gathering process,” McCormick said.

Republicans at the State House on Monday carry boxes containing what they say are enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot to overturn ranked-choice voting in presidential elections. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

The Maine Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters of Maine also issued statements Monday in support of ranked-choice voting.

The ranked-choice voting process allows – but does not require – voters to rank candidates in order of preference on their ballots for races that have three or more contenders. If one candidate wins a majority on the first tally of votes, the election is over and that person is declared the victor. But if no one receives a majority, voters’ ranked preferences will be used to decide a winner.

The candidate with the fewest votes after the first tally is eliminated from contention and their supporters’ votes are reallocated to the remaining contenders based on each voter’s ranked preferences. The process continues – with candidates being eliminated from the bottom up – until one person has received a clear majority.

Maine now uses ranked-choice voting in primary elections for state offices and in primary and general elections for members of Congress.

The campaign to repeal use of the law in the presidential election in November reflects Republican efforts nationally to oppose election laws they view as too liberal or unconstitutional. It may also indicate concern that ranked-choice voting could prevent President Trump from again capturing one of Maine’s four Electoral College votes, as he did in 2016.

Under a special agreement with Mills’ administration the campaign was allowed to continue to collect signatures during physically-distancing rules put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While other political deadlines were extended to assist campaigns, our deadline was actually cut shorter by a month due to the early adjournment of their legislature,” said Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party. “That meant we had to go into overdrive to make sure the voice of the voters was heard.”

To collect signatures the party hosted more than 315 separate remote stop-and-sign signature-gathering events across the state,  Savage said.

Turning in the required signatures could also halt the use of the law until the ballot measure is decided.

Maine’s ranked-choice voting law will also be in play in an upcoming July 14 primary election, where Democrats will choose a candidate to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican. Republicans will also use ranked-choice voting to select a candidate to challenge Golden in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.

Voters statewide first approved ranked-choice voting at the ballot box in 2016. The Legislature then repealed the law, but voters responded by overturning the repeal with a people’s veto referendum in 2017.

Maine became the first state in the nation to elect a member to Congress using the voting method in 2018 when 2nd District Congressman Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat, beat incumbent Bruce Poliquin, a Republican.

Poliquin later sued in federal court over the use of ranked-choice voting but a federal district judge upheld the state’s law. Numerous other legal challenges to ranked-choice voting have also been defeated in the lower courts in Maine.

Democrats also used ranked-choice voting to select Janet Mills as their candidate for governor in 2018, but it did not factor in the Republican primary that year as the winner of that election received more than 51 percent of the primary vote.

Correction: This story was updated at 10 a.m. Tuesday June 16, 2020 to reflect that the bill became law without the governor’s signature.

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