AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine’s highest court on Tuesday cleared the way for a system in which voters are allowed to rank their candidate choices during the June primaries.
The Supreme Judicial Court declined to weigh into constitutional claims by the state Senate, which sought to derail ranked-choice voting. Justices said voters have demanded that the state move ahead on ranked-choice voting.
“Ranked-choice voting is the current statutory law of Maine for the primary elections to be held on June 12, 2018,” the justices wrote in their 22-page unanimous decision. “The consistent and explicit purpose of the citizens’ initiative and the people’s veto has been to transition Maine elections to a system of ranked-choice voting.”
Supporters of the change cheered the announcement, which paves the way for Maine to become the first in the nation to allow the voting overhaul in a statewide primary election.
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“Today’s decision by the Maine Supreme Court confirms that the Maine people are sovereign and have the final say,” said Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting.
Justices had been racing against the clock. Election officials said the June 12 primary ballots need to be sent to the printer later this month.
The state Senate asked the court to weigh in after Democratic Secretary of State Matt Dunlap told lawmakers that Maine could open itself up to a lawsuit if it implemented ranked-choice voting this June. The Senate’s lawsuit against Dunlap argued that he lacked the constitutional authority to spend existing funds or arrange for the security of ballots in a ranked-choice voting election.
But justices said they were not persuaded that ranked-choice voting creates a “constitutional crisis.” They said it is not up to the court to meddle in such legislative issues.
Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau said he still has concerns about Dunlap’s plan, but that it would take a lot of support from lawmakers to address any issues as the Legislature nears the end of its session.
“I think there are a lot of unsettled issues surrounding ranked-choice voting that are probably going to be discussed in the future,” Thibodeau said.
The system would allow voters to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference. A candidate with a majority of votes wins. If there is no majority, then the last-place candidate’s votes are reallocated and the votes are tabulated again.
The intervention by the state’s top court is the latest chapter in an election reform process adopted by voters.
Ranked-choice voting is already in use in more than a dozen U.S. cities. It also has been used once in a statewide election in North Carolina.
But its adoption in Maine has been messy. State lawmakers delayed implementation after voters approved the new system in November 2016. Supporters then collected enough signatures to temporarily halt the delay pending a second statewide vote on June 12.
Supporters say the system ensures a majority winner and eliminates the impact of spoilers. Critics say it is confusing for voters and could lead to lawsuits by candidates.
The Supreme Judicial Court already has looked at ranked-choice voting, issuing an advisory opinion last year that it is likely unconstitutional for general elections for governor and state legislators because of state constitutional conflicts.
Because of that non-binding decision, the ranked-choice voting system was scaled back for use in primary elections and federal general elections. Voters in June will decide whether to use ranked-choice voting for such elections.