AUGUSTA — Whatever the state Supreme Court advises about whether ranked choice voting violates Maine’s Constitution, the new voting method would apparently still apply to primaries and congressional elections.
“The majority of the elections should be governed by this in 2018,” said Kate Knox of Bernstein Shur, representing the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting that pushed last year’s successful ballot question that would make Maine the first state in the country to adopt the system.
Knox told legislators recently they “still have a large number of elections” that are required to use ranked choice voting under last year’s initiative regardless of what the Supreme Court says.
The court is only considering whether ranked choice voting would violate the state constitution for general elections.
That means that unless the Legislature opts to hit the brakes on the whole initiative approved by voters last year, state primaries next year would kick off the new system.
Slated to start in June 2018, the change in voting methods may have a dramatic impact both on which candidates are chosen by their parties to appear on the general election ballot and which ones ultimately win.
The court’s opinion isn’t the final word on the constitutionality of the new voting procedure for general elections. Its response to the Senate’s request for its opinion is only advisory.
“It’s not binding in any way,” Knox told a legislative committee this week.
But lawmakers are likely to heed its advice if justices tell them they think ranked choice voting violates a constitutional provision that says a plurality of votes cast determines the winner in Maine elections, wording that’s open to interpretation.
“It could go either way,” said Rep. Owen Casas, I-Rockport.
He said that even if the court declares that it thinks ranked choice voting is unconstitutional, the Legislature could opt to push for a constitutional amendment to ensure the new voting method is legal.
Julie Flynn, deputy secretary of state, said her office is ready to “ramp up our efforts” to figure out how to apply the new voting system statewide “as soon as we get a decision.”
“We’re prepared to hit the ground running,” she said, including requests for legislative action this session to pave the way for necessary rulemaking.
She said the state will rely on paper ballots and optical scanners.
“We’re not going to make everybody count by hand,” Flynn said, but it’s also too costly to get machines to do it everywhere.
With ranked choice voting, those filling in ballots pick not just the person they want most for a given office. They also rank all the rest of the candidates in order.
What happens when votes are counted is that if nobody gets a majority, the candidate with the lowest total is dropped and votes cast for that person would be redistributed to whoever the second choice was on those ballots.
That process continues until somebody wins a majority.