PORTLAND, Maine — With the clock ticking, state supreme court justices hastily convened attorneys Thursday to consider whether the secretary of state’s implementation of ranked-choice voting for the June primaries without funding by state lawmakers violates the Maine Constitution.
An attorney for the Maine Senate warned that the Separation of Powers is a “fundamental touchstone of our liberty” while the attorney general’s office countered that state election officials always have had broad authority when it comes to elections.
“The Senate is here because its authority over the electoral process has been, in its view, supervened. We’re are looking at a process here which we think is going to end up with a great loss of voter confidence,” said Tim Woodcock, attorney for the Maine Senate.
Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner said Secretary of State Matt Dunlap is following the law in implementing the new voting system.
“The secretary of state administers elections. We’re simply administering them by a slightly different method this time,” she told justices.
The voting system would allow Mainers to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference. A candidate with a majority of votes wins. If there’s no majority, then the last-place candidate’s second-place votes are reallocated to the other candidates.
Supporters say the system ensures a majority winner and eliminates the impact of spoilers. Critics say it’s confusing for voters and could lead to lawsuits by candidates.
Justices are racing the clock. Election officials have said the primary ballots need to be sent to the printer for design and printing by late April.
The hearing was aimed at addressing questions forwarded just the day before from the Maine Senate, the secretary of state and an advocacy group.
At times, justices appeared skeptical of the need for an 11th-hour intervention.
At one point during a lively discussion, a skeptical Justice Ellen Gorman appeared to stifle a laugh when Woodcock warned of a looming “election catastrophe.”
Ranked-choice voting has been used only once before in a statewide election, for a judge in North Carolina, but it’s used in more than a dozen cities across the United States.
Mainers approved the new voting concept in a statewide referendum in November 2016, but state lawmakers delayed its implementation. More than 62,000 signatures were certified to temporarily halt the legislative delay pending a second statewide vote on June 12.
The state supreme court has already looked at ranked-choice voting, issuing an advisory opinion last year that it’s likely unconstitutional for general elections for governor and state legislators.
Advocates then successfully pushed for the system to be used for primary elections and for general elections for U.S. Senate and House in Maine.