Why Maine will likely vote again on ranked-choice elections

Good morning from Augusta, where one citizen initiative wasn’t enough to implement ranked-choice voting in Maine so another one has begun.

The Legislature pretty much killed the concept on Monday. The Legislature has long been known to tinker with successful citizen-initiated referendums but it’s relatively rare to see one repealed outright. That’s not exactly what happened to the ranked-choice voting measure but it’s not far from reality either. The bill sent to Gov. Paul LePage during Monday’s special legislative session delays implementation of ranked-choice voting until December 2021 but contains a provision that if the system isn’t brought into compliance with the Maine Constitution by then, it will automatically be repealed.

But hold on: Might we still use the system in next year’s elections anyway? Proponents of the system, which allows voters to choose multiple candidates in order of preference, have vowed a people’s veto of the bill that passed on Monday. If successful, a people’s veto would revert Maine to the current ranked-choice voting system enacted last year. Kyle Bailey, who ran the 2016 campaign that convinced Mainers to support ranked-choice voting, said Tuesday during a radio interview on WVOM that he and others will launch a petition drive immediately to spur a people’s veto that would overturn the Legislature’s action. A looming people’s veto could freeze the voter-approved system in place to be used in next year’s elections, according to Bailey.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap says not so fast. Proponents of the people’s veto would have to collect close to or more than 61,123 signatures and submit them to the state. Dunlap, a Democrat, said that if his office estimated that they reached that threshold — even if all the signatures hadn’t been certified as registered Maine voters yet — the freeze on the current law would then go into effect. The law enacted Monday, if it is signed by LePage, would go into effect in 90 days. “They’d have to collect the signatures by then [for the current law to be frozen],” said Dunlap. “That’s what the 90-day window provides for.”

Meanwhile, proponents of ranked-choice voting are promising ramifications for lawmakers who voted against it. Sitting lawmakers could face primary challenges in the next election, according to Dunlap, who said he and some lawmakers have already been the target of “nasty” and “vitriolic” comments. With the votes now cast — here are the House and Senate roll calls — proponents know exactly who to target for lobbying and in next year’s elections.

Bailey said a people’s veto is ranked-choice voting’s best chance. Fixing the Maine Constitution requires a statewide referendum, which first requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. It’s a high bar because changing the Constitution is supposed to be difficult. “This is why people don’t really trust government,” said Bailey. “They broke faith with Maine voters. Nearly 400,000 Maine people supported this and the Legislature rejected the will of the people.”

What else happened during Monday’s special session

There’s still a lot of haze over how Maine will implement marijuana legalization approved by voters last year. The Legislature passed a special committee’s bill on Tuesday to regulate recreational marijuana in Maine and sent it to LePage, but it didn’t have the two-thirds support in both chambers to withstand an expected veto. If he nixes it and lawmakers don’t budge, they’ll likely have to return to the issue when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

But two minor legislative fixes were approved. The Legislature amended the state’s first-in-the-nation food sovereignty law to exclude meat and poultry, clearing the way for allowing more direct sales between food producers and consumers and dodging a federal takeover of Maine’s inspection system. Also, the Legislature approved a bill to fund a state mapping office that LePage said was defunded in the two-year budget passed earlier this year.

LePage reversed his reversal of re-nominations for five judges. This controversy was over before it really began. LePage issued letters to legislative leaders on Friday saying that he was pulling the re-nominations for Superior Court Justices Robert Murray Jr., MaryGay Kennedy and Ann Murray and District Court Judges Bruce Jordan of Veazie and Susan Oram of Auburn. But before his office ever said why, he canceled those withdrawals. All five judges were confirmed unanimously by the Senate.

And LePage got two department commissioners and an energy regulator confirmed, but not without one fight. It’s typical for commissioner appointees to face little to no opposition, but nine Democrats voted against Ricker Hamilton, the governor’s pick to lead the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. They didn’t debate it, however, and he was still confirmed alongside new Department of Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Alec Porteous and Maine Public Utilities Commissioner Randy Davis.

Mixed company in the State House bureau

The Daily Brief’s bureau in the office building across from the State House is a fair and balanced place that often gets busy during marathon days in the Legislature. Monday was no different.

Brent Littlefield, LePage’s eager Republican political adviser, was chatting after imploring us to further cover the anti-Medicaid expansion campaign he’s leading when Attorney General Janet Mills, also a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, came down the hall behind him.

Before he saw her, she mimed hitting him with the empty plastic bottle in her hand and gave him bunny ears. But they had a civil chat about legislators of yesteryear and gave us this photo, though we don’t expect them to work together. Here’s their soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading it on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.