Update: The Maine state senate voted 24-10 in favor of the call for a "solemn occasion." This will cause unfortunate delay in implementation of ranked choice voting, but we still believe Maine will be prepared to conduct its June, 2018 primary elections by ranked choice voting.
When Maine voters adopted ranked choice voting on November 8, 2016, the result was heralded as “hope for the future.” However, a recent controversial move in South Dakota demonstrates how politicians can react to reform with knee-jerk opposition, and some worry that at least some Maine legislators are seeking a way to delay, or even repeal, ranked choice voting - against the wishes of the people.
In South Dakota, Initiated Measure 22 (IM-22), passed with 52% of the vote. This initiative limits campaign contributions, increased reporting requirements, installed a 2-year ban on lobbying for former state officials, created a system of public financing, and forms an ethics commission to oversee these reforms.
Even before IM-22 passed with strong bipartisan support, legislators in South Dakota have voiced opposition to the measure. After its passage, opponents of the initiative convinced a circuit court judge to halt the implementation of the measure until it was reviewed by the state supreme court. In addition to this review, last week the legislature called an emergency session to put forward a bill that effectively hollows out IM-22. South Dakota was the first state to allow voter initiatives, giving its voters the opportunity to weigh in on, and pass, legislation. Many feel that this proposed maneuver by the legislature would go directly against the will of the people and highlights the need for reform and oversight.
In Maine, Question 5 passed with 52% of the vote - with more votes than any presidential candidate and more votes than two of the other winning ballot measures. This initiative mandates that ranked choice voting (RCV) be used to elect the state legislature, Governor, U.S. Representatives, and U.S. Senator, beginning in 2018.
Some leaders in the Maine legislature are showing some signs of following South Dakota’s lead and pushing back against reform despite the clearly expressed will of the people. Earlier this month members of the senate said that they will seek a “solemn occasion,” which is when the legislature asks for a non-binding legal opinion from the state supreme court, on the constitutionality of Question 5. This procedure exists for the legislature to ask about the constitutionality of a bill it is considering passing. If the supreme court chooses to take up this question, it would be the first time the supreme court weighed in on legislation that had already been passed by the voters. It is unprecedented, and it raises concerns that the legislature is seeking a pretext for delaying implementation or even repealing the law.
Some of those backing the solemn occasion request may sincerely believe that the constitutional issues should be worked out. But the legal claims are weak. Despite some claims to the contrary, the weight of legal analysis is that RCV in Maine is constitutional, especially when grounded in a majority vote of the people. There also are straightforward ways to implement ranked choice voting that keep with Maine’s tradition of transparency and security.
Legislation to adopt ranked choice voting was introduced in the state legislature every year from 2001 to 2014 when retiring state senator Dick Woodbury decided that if the legislature wouldn’t consider this measure, the voters should. On November 5th, 2014 a group of volunteers at the polls collected over 35,000 signatures in a single day. It appeared that voters were more than ready to have a conversation about RCV. Throughout 2015 and 2016, FairVote Maine, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting and other allies talked with Mainers across the state and worked with a broad, cross-partisan coalition to ensure that voters knew what ranked choice voting was and how it could improve Maine elections. On election night 2016, voters agreed.
While there are still many discussions to have about implementation and procedures, Maine’s legislature is putting itself in the same unfortunate position as lawmakers in South Dakota. By going against the will of the people, they are highlighting the motivation for reform in the first place. Ranked choice voting puts power back into the hands of the voters. Their will should be respected now and they should have more choice and more voice with RCV in 2018.