Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday blocked a Cumberland County Superior Court ruling that would have allowed a people’s veto question on ranked-choice voting in the presidential election to go on the November ballot.

If the law stands Maine will be the first state in the U.S. to use the system when voting for president.

Tuesday’s decision means Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap will prepare ballots that include a ranked-choice voting format in the presidential contest but no veto question.

However, it’s still not clear whether the system will be used, as the high court will now consider an appeal of the lower court’s ruling on the issue.

Dunlap said the ballot going to the printers this week will not include the people’s veto question. But depending on the outcome of the appeal, voters could still decide the issue, he said. How that might come about – either at a subsequent statewide vote or in November somehow, remains uncertain.

“But we are printing them with ranked-choice voting for president and no people’s veto,” Dunlap said. Dunlap said he is now out of time if he is going to get ballots from the printer sent to absentee voters overseas, largely Mainers serving in the U.S. military, by the required deadline of Sept. 19. “If a gear strips on a printing press we won’t even have time to get the part replaced. Literally nothing can go wrong at this point.”

Diane Hodges reaches for a ballot box during the 2nd Congressional District ranked-choice voting tabulation in July. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

In question is whether the Maine Republican Party collected enough valid voter signatures on petitions to trigger a people’s veto question on the 2019 law that extends ranked-choice voting to presidential elections

State law requires 63,067 signatures from registered voters – or a number equal to 10 percent of those who participated in the last election for governor.

Dunlap rejected the petition from the party earlier this year, partly because about 1,000 signatures were collected by petitioners who were not registered as Maine voters in the town that they lived in while collecting signatures. That’s a requirement of an amendment to the state’s constitution, passed by voters in 1975.

The party appealed Dunlap’s July decision to reject their petition to a Cumberland County Superior Court justice, who ruled that the signatures collected by those not legally registered at the time to vote should be counted.

That ruling was appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court on the grounds Justice Thomas McKeon erred by not considering some of the facts before him. The facts included evidence about the voter registration requirement, duplicate signatures and signatures from people not registered to vote. That left the petition drive at least 22 signatures short.

In its decision issued Tuesday, the state’s Law Court found the lower court’s decision is automatically put on hold pending the outcome of the appeal.

The high court also ordered attorneys in the case to file their written briefs on the underlying appeal by the end of the day Tuesday, an indication the court intends to act quickly on the appeal as well.

In their brief in support of staying the lower court’s reversal, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, argued that a plurality winner could be determined using a ranked-choice ballot, but a ranked-choice winner could not be determined with a traditional ballot. This suggests the ballot could be prepared for ranked-choice voting, but if the court sides with the Republican Party, then Dunlap would only count voters’ first choice in the five-way presidential contest in Maine.

Maine’s ballot will include President Trump, his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden and three third-party candidates – the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins, Libertarian Party nominee Jo Jorgensen and the Alliance Party’s Rocky De La Fuente.

Under the ranked-choice system, voters select candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first place votes in the first round, 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.

The top court has until Sept. 24 to decide the appeal and uphold or overturn Dunlap’s July ruling. If it sides with Republicans, ranked-choice voting would be put on hold for the presidential race in November – and voters would likely decide the ballot measure at the next statewide election. If the court sides with Dunlap and the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, then voters would rank their candidates by preference in the presidential race and the veto question would be dead.

Ranked-choice voting will still be used in Maine’s neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins, her Democratic challenger, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, Lisa Savage, a Green Party affiliated independent, and conservative independent Max Linn.

The new state law that applies ranked-choice voting to presidential elections in Maine would also determine how the state awards two of its four Electoral College votes. Maine is one of only two states to split its Electoral College votes based on the election’s outcome in each of its two U.S. congressional districts, with one vote going to the winner in each district and two votes going to the statewide winner.

The final decision on the use of the balloting system could become a significant factor in what many believe will be a tight presidential contest in 2020.

In 2016, for the first time in 30 years, the state split its Electoral College votes, with President Trump winning one of the state’s four votes by beating Democrat Hillary Clinton by 10 points in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.

Clinton won the statewide vote and the state’s 1st Congressional District, earning the other three votes.

The high court’s ruling is the latest in an ongoing series of legal disputes in both federal and state court over Maine’s first-in-the-nation ranked choice voting system.

Maine voters, in statewide ballot questions, have twice approved the system, although the state’s more northern, rural and conservative 2nd Congressional District has opposed it.

Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, downplayed Tuesday’s decision to stay the lower court’s decision as merely “procedural.”

“Today’s Maine Judicial Supreme Court order was not on the merits of the People’s Veto to repeal ranked-choice voting in Maine’s presidential elections,” Savage said in a prepared statement. “It is simply a procedural order holding that an automatic stay is in place until the issue is resolved in the court, as with any appeal of this nature.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.