Matt Dunlap says GOP lawsuit over ranked-choice voting is based on speculation

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The Maine Republican Party’s claim in a federal lawsuit that ranked-choice voting could lead to the election of a candidate who was not truly the party’s “standard-bearer” is based only on speculation, an attorney for Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said in a formal response to the suit.

“The underlying factual assumptions for this theory are highly debatable and empirically unproven,” Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner wrote in a response filed for Dunlap in U.S. District Court in Portland on Thursday.

“Moreover, (Maine Republican Party) cites no case law to support its contention that a method of voting — as distinct from rules governing who can vote in the primary or what requirements party candidates must meet to qualify for the ballot — could somehow harm (the party’s) First Amendment rights of association,” Gardiner wrote.

“The candidates whose names will appear on the Republican primary ballot have already met the threshold requirements to become the party’s nominees (or ‘standard-bearers’) for state office.”

The party went to court after changing its rules at its May 4 convention in hopes of stopping the use of ranked-choice voting, approved at the ballot box by voters in 2016, in the party’s June 12 primary elections.

The Republican Party filed its suit on May 5 seeking to stop Dunlap from retabulating ballots under the ranked-choice voting law and instead allow only the first round of counting, which is conducted by municipal election officials.

Under Maine’s traditional voting system, the candidate who gets the highest vote total is declared the winner, even if that is less than 50 percent in a race with three or more contestants.

In the ranked-choice system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If in the first count no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters who chose the eliminated candidate would 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 majority and is declared the winner.

The party announced the suit shortly after delegates at its biannual convention voted unanimously to change the party’s platform rules to say they preferred using a plurality vote in their primary.

In her answer, Gardiner also details how Maine’s underlying primary election law was enacted by ballot initiative in 1911.

“Similar laws were adopted in a number of states as part of a wave of Progressive Era reforms designed to remove control of the nomination process from ‘party bosses’ and ‘smoke-filled rooms’ and place it in the hands of the party’s rank-and-file voters,” Gardiner wrote.

The response to the federal suit comes just a day after U.S. District Court Judge Jon D. Levy denied a request by the Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting to intervene in the lawsuit. With the primary election less than a month away, Levy said, participation by the committee “would complicate a case that badly needs to be expedited.” Levy said the committee should instead file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Secretary of State’s Office by Monday.

The first hearing on the suit is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday.

This story will be updated.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap talks in March about his experiences with the national voter fraud commission at the Muskie Archives on the campus of Bates College in Lewiston. Hosting the discussion was Bates politics professor John Baughman, left. (Sun Journal file photo)

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