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Court: Ranked-choice voting runs afoul of Maine Constitution

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The nation’s first voting system for statewide elections that allows voters to rank their top candidate picks runs afoul of the Maine Constitution, the state supreme court said Tuesday, opening the door to legislative action to undo the voter-approved law.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court unanimously concluded the election overhaul aimed at ensuring a majority vote for the winning candidate conflicts with the constitutional mandate that a candidate with a plurality — the most votes — wins.

“The plurality requirements in these constitutional provisions have not changed since 1880. As last amended to address the public’s lack of confidence in the elective process in 1880, the language of the Maine Constitution today is clear,” the justices wrote.

The nonbinding decision was requested by lawmakers considering whether to implement or eliminate the ranked-choice voting system approved by voters in November.

The referendum would’ve allowed residents to rank their ballot choices from first to last in a system that ensures a candidate wins majority support while eliminating the impact of spoilers and rejecting party extremists who lack centrist appeal.

A candidate who gets a majority of first-place votes is the winner. If no one gets a majority, however, the last-place finisher is eliminated and voters’ second choices are applied to the remaining candidates. The process repeats until someone gets a majority.

Kyle Bailey, campaign manager of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, called on state lawmakers to uphold the will of the people. “Nearly 400,000 Mainers voted to enact ranked-choice voting,” Bailey said. “They want a better system to elect our leaders.”

One Democratic lawmaker pledged to introduce a constitutional amendment, which would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers and another statewide vote.

But House Republicans declared ranked-choice voting dead, and Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau said leaving the law alone until it’s challenged in court would “create chaos.”

Republicans have been critical of several voter-approved referendums, including a surcharge on wealthy Mainers and a minimum-wage law. Republican Rep. Ellie Espling said the court’s decision “reinforces the problems that arise when we send unvetted legislation out to referendum.”

Ranked-choice voting has been used in municipal elections nationwide, but Maine was the first state to try to implement the system statewide.

Democrats point out that such a system could’ve thwarted the election of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who was twice elected in three-way races.

But LePage’s election victories were not anomalies. The winner in nine of the past 11 gubernatorial elections failed to get at least 50 percent of the vote.

Democratic Sen. Cathy Breen vowed to submit a bill to start the process of amending the Maine Constitution to allow ranked-choice voting. The bill would require approval from a council of legislative leaders before lawmakers could take it up.

“Voters in Maine approved ranked-choice voting because they’re tired of politics as usual,” she said. “They want a better way forward, one that’s less partisan and more inclusive.”

Thibodeau said he doubts there’s support for a constitutional amendment and acknowledged the Legislature must act swiftly to tweak or repeal the law to make sure elections abide by the constitution.

The state supreme court ruling deals only with elections for governor and state lawmakers, so ranked-choice voting still would apply to elections for president and Congress, along with state primaries for all offices, ranked-choice voting advocates said.

“We can’t have folks going to the polls and voting in one regatta for state offices and another regatta for federal offices,” Thibodeau said. “That would be too confusing to many of the voters.”

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Villeneuve contributed from Augusta, Maine.

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