By Jack Dodson
ELLSWORTH — The state Legislature passed a bill Monday that would delay ranked-choice Voting (RCV) until after the 2021 elections.
The bill stipulates that RCV would be repealed if a constitutional amendment isn’t enacted before that time to address lawmakers’ legal concerns.
Legislators note that, according to Maine’s Constitution, the winner of an election is the candidate who gets a plurality of the votes, as opposed to requiring — as RCV does — a majority.
The winner of a plurality is the candidate who gets the most votes … period. A majority requires garnering 50 percent or more of the votes cast.
In response to this week’s legislative vote, supporters of RCV have launched a campaign to overturn that action. These supporters plan to initiate a people’s veto that would give Maine voters a chance at the June primaries to undo the Legislature’s bill.
In a Facebook post by the Committee for Ranked-choice Voting announcing the people’s veto effort, Chairman Dick Woodbury, a former state senator, said Monday’s vote was “outrageous.”
“The vote-splitting problems that have dominated Maine elections in the past are all the more serious in 2018,” he wrote, “and that’s why citizens demanded ranked-choice voting be up and running and ready to go for the 2018 primaries.”
A people’s veto would suspend Monday’s legislative action, meaning RCV would be the law of the land in June. Voters would be using the system to rank candidates, while also voting on whether to uphold or undo Monday’s bill to delay implementation of the system.
State Rep. Louis Luchini (D-Ellsworth), co-chairman of the legislative committee on election law, supported Monday’s bill to delay implementation of RCV after previous efforts to fix issues with the law failed.
He said he believed the bill approved last November by Maine voters was badly written, and in a way that was unconstitutional. He blamed the bill’s authors for misleading RCV supporters and being unwilling to change the law to allow it to take effect.
“Legislators were left with two options, really,” he said. “The first would be to do nothing and fully implement the law. In my view, this would not be an option, because this would be intentionally leaving an unconstitutional law on the books.”
The second option, he said, was to vote for Monday’s bill.
According to Ann Luther, a longtime board member for Maine’s League of Women Voters and an Ellsworth resident, if the people’s veto doesn’t pass, the likelihood that ranked-choice voting would be repealed altogether in 2021 is high.
“Unless there’s a significant change in the personnel in the legislature, a constitutional amendment will not pass,” she said.
Her organization is still deciding whether to support the people’s veto campaign or to pursue a different path.
For State Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County), the question came down to logistics. He supported Monday’s bill for “a whole host of reasons,” including that he didn’t want a chaotic election next year to lead to judges choosing Maine’s next governor.
“The importance of running elections smoothly, the trust that voters put in their clerks to manage these elections well,” Langley said, “the way that this was headed was this was just going to be chaos in the next election.”
He also said once it was clear a constitutional amendment was necessary to implement ranked-choice voting, he supported giving the legislature, the governor and the voters in Maine time to enact one.
“This just kind of sets it back on track for really the way changes to the constitution ought to be done,” he said.
As for the people’s veto, Langley said he didn’t know how that would play out, but he hopes voters will take into account the opinion of Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who has said he thinks rolling out the new voting system would be difficult.
“I don’t see an upside to the people’s veto,” Luchini said.
“If the courts overturned the election results of the people, it would be a constitutional crisis, and we’d be a national embarrassment … that just wasn’t an option for me.”
Luther said the debate about how to implement ranked-choice isn’t likely to get simpler.
“It’s definitely going to be a complicated situation with a lot of moving parts, right up until the end,” she said.