Opinion

Ranked Choice Voting: Another Fine Mess

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Is the proposed citizen initiative question legal according to the Maine Constitution?

Had that one basic yardstick for citizen initiative ballot questions been in place in October 2014, Maine voters could have been spared a lot of aggravation. Instead, Maine’s Secretary of State gave the okay for fans to circulate a citizen initiative petition to enact ranked-choice voting (RCV) on Oct. 2014. When the petition signatures were delivered, the SoS validated enough of them for RCV to be voted on by the Legislature, or put on a statewide ballot for voters to decide.

Then the Secretary of State approved this question wording for the November 2016 election ballot:

“Do you want to allow voters to rank their choices of candidates in elections for U.S. Senate, Congress, Governor, State Senate, and State Representative, and to have ballots counted at the state level in multiple rounds in which last-place candidates are eliminated until a candidate wins by majority?”

Voters approved the RCV question 388,273 to 356,621 — a 31,652 vote margin — on Nov. 8, 2016.

Then on Feb. 2, 2017 — the Maine Senate asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, is RCV for general (not primary) elections for the Maine Legislature and Maine Governor constitutional?

May 23, 2017 that Court issued a unanimous advisory opinion: RCV general elections for the Maine Legislature and Maine Governor are NOT constitutional.

To paraphrase Oliver Hardy, this is a fine mess our elected officials have gotten us into.

“To me, this whole thing is just being carried on by a bunch of dumbsters who don’t even understand the basic process of the referendum,” my friend Mary Adams told me this week during a phone conversation. Nobody I know is either more understanding, or more protective, of Maine’s citizen initiative referendums, than Mary Adams.

“The referendum was a revolutionary thing which gave citizens equal standing, for an instant, with the Legislature. Once those signatures are there and verified, then you can relax — if you’re a citizen that [collected] the signatures — because nothing can stop it,” said Mrs. Adams. “It will go to the Legislature, it will have a hearing. It won’t matter what the legislative committee says about it, because it’s on its way to the ballot.”

“So, they don’t understand [the citizen initiative referendum] is a very revolutionary way for citizens who are frustrated, perhaps, by the system,” Adams went on, “as we were back in the ‘70s trying to get rid of the state property tax. But whatever [the] reason, those citizens are given that little bit of power to push through an idea to their fellow citizens,” she said.

If the idea is approved, Mary Adams said, “it just become a piece of statutory language, just like if the Legislature passed it,” she said.

But the point about the RCV citizen initiative is: it spotlights a huge flaw in how such ballot questions are approved. The Secretary of State is required to ensure any changes to existing law proposed by citizen initiatives are worded correctly. That all the t’s are crossed and i’s dotted. They are not required to ask the courts if citizen initiative questions are constitutionally legal.

“The last line of defense,” Adams said of the citizen initiative referendum, “if it’s a rotten piece of legislation — which RCV is, then the Legislature can abolish it just as soon as it’s put on the books,” she said. “It’s nothing to be afraid of. The people spoke. If it’s contrary to the constitution, or if it’s going to bankrupt the state, then the Legislature can get rid of it. Instantly,” said Mary. But, Mary continued, “this Legislature is so crazy that they just messed it up further.”

Next week, I’ll examine how the Legislature “messed it up further” and other RCV considerations.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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