Several city and town clerks contacted Friday said they are ready to handle the nation’s first ranked-choice voting during Maine’s June primary elections, and that the difficulty in implementing the voter-approved law is primarily at the state level.

While state election officials and lawmakers were confused and concerned Thursday by new legal questions about the voting process, municipal clerks have been hiring staff, preparing educational materials and, in some cases, arranging for extra vote-counting machines to handle the different types of ballots that they planned to use for local elections such as school district budget votes and the statewide ranked-choice primaries for governor, Congress and the Legislature. 

On Thursday, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap raised new legal questions about the state’s new voting law during an appearance before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over voting and elections. Dunlap and others say the Legislature needs to fix the law or the election may be invalid or subject to legal challenge, and both the state and ranked-choice voting advocates asked a judge on Friday to rule on the questions and ensure that the election moves forward as planned.

The confusion is ill-timed for state officials trying to design ballots that allow voters to rank their choices in state races with more than two candidates, including seven candidates on the Democratic ballot for governor and four on the Republican ballot.

In a traditional election, whoever gets the most votes wins, whether it is a majority or a plurality, which can be less than 50 percent. Under the ranked-choice system, voters select candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Voters who preferred the eliminated candidate would then have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidates, and the ballots would be re-tabulated. The process continues until one candidate has a clear majority of votes.

Julie Flynn, the deputy secretary of state, said her office must mail ballots to military personnel and overseas voters no later than April 27. That means her office has just a few weeks to finalize the design of ballots – a process that she said “is not science, it’s an art” – that will likely separate ranked-choice races for governor, from races that will use the traditional process.

Flynn said her office has a “rough idea” of the design, which will likely appear in a grid format featuring candidates’ names and columns for voters to rank the contenders.

The ballots will be distributed to cities and towns, where it’s the job of municipal clerks to actually conduct elections. Cites and towns that use machines to tally votes will need a separate machine programmed just for the ranked-choice races.

Clerks in several cities and towns said Friday they were at the ready with the appropriate machines and staffing to handle ranked-choice races and the traditional local elections or ballot questions, including local school district budget votes.

In Lewiston, City Clerk Kathy Montejo said they are simply in a “wait and see pattern” with the state.

Due to Lewiston’s charter, the local budget must be adopted before June, meaning Lewiston is holding its own school budget referendum on May 8.

The June 12 election will be a state ballot only, and all the preparation and voting machine programming is done by the Secretary of State’s office.

In the meantime, she said on her “to-do” list is voter outreach and education on ranked-choice voting should it be used in June.

Montejo said “I think a lot of municipal clerks are waiting for some sort of official info sheet or instructional videos” from the state on ranked-choice voting that they can share at the local level.

In Auburn, where the June 12 election will feature local and state ballots, City Clerk Sue Clements-Dallaire said Auburn already has two ballot machines per polling location, meaning they can get by without leasing additional machines if ranked-choice is used in June.

She said one machine will be programmed to read the state ballot, while the other will read the local ballot.

She’s planning to have the ballot layout and machine programming complete by sometime in April, so time is limited.

“It happens fast,” she said. “I don’t envy the state right now. They’ve got a lot on their plate.”

In an email Friday, Old Orchard Beach Town Clerk Kim McLaughlin wrote, “Speaking only for myself, I have hired enough staff to cover the June election for ranked-choice voting. I’ve already started booking organizations in town to conduct education outreach once the Secretary of State’s Office has supplied us with the rules.”

Knowing the final rules and final decision on ranked-choice voting would set the town’s plan in motion – or not, she said.

“It is extremely important to make sure the voters are educated on the ballot, to make sure their vote counts,” McLaughlin wrote. “If (ranked-choice voting) doesn’t occur, I will cancel the education outreach program until we hear further from the secretary of state.”

Portland City Clerk Kathy Jones also said she was prepared to run either type of election or both depending on what the final decision was on ranked-choice voting. She said most other cities and towns in Maine also are equipped to handle the change.

“For ranked-choice voting, the only differences the cities and towns will see is whether they will use one machine for state and one machine for the city’s ballots,” or the same machine to count both, Jones said in an email. “Because of the size of Portland, we already have two election tabulators for each polling place. For me to program one for the city and one for the state is not an inconvenience. The difficulties at this point are at the state level.”

Not only are state officials responsible for printing the ranked-choice ballots and distributing them to the towns – if the process survives new legal questions – they also will have to sort out the winners of a ranked-choice elections where no candidate wins a majority on election day. Ballots would be collected by the state to conduct a process similar to a recount.

Municipal clerks are responsible for printing ballots for local races and ballot questions, which are not affected by the ranked-choice voting law.

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