Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, speaks at a rally of supporters of ranked choice voting, Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. The group delivered petitions aimed at thwarting a legislative delay and putting the voting system into place for state primaries in June. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Supporters of ranked-choice voting in Maine — joined by eight Democratic candidates — filed a lawsuit Friday to ensure that the voting method is in place in time for the June primaries.

The lawsuit comes more than two weeks before the deadline for Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat, to certify signatures designed to place on the June 12 ballot a referendum question that could decide the long-term fate of ranked-choice voting.

The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting announced Friday afternoon that it has filed a suit in Kennebec County Superior Court. One candidate for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, six gubernatorial candidates and a Maine Senate candidate signed onto the lawsuit.

Dick Woodbury, chairman of the committee, said ranked-choice voting “is the law and it must be implemented now to ensure the validity of the upcoming primaries.”

The 11-page complaint alleges that Dunlap’s inaction has left candidates “guessing which method of election will decide their respective races.” It seeks an injunction to force the secretary of state’s office to implement ranked-choice voting on June 12.

“Such uncertainty threatens irreparable injury to the candidates because each intends to tailor their costly campaigns for public office to the method of election that will decide the primaries,” the complaint said. “Failure to implement the law additionally threatens the validity of any election conducted by the secretary using an illegal election system.”

The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting collected signatures from registered Maine voters for a people’s veto of a bill enacted last year that delays implementation of ranked-choice voting. That bill contained a poison-pill clause that could kill ranked-choice in 2021 if the Maine Constitution is not amended to address concerns about gubernatorial and legislative elections flagged by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Dunlap, who has not yet been served with the complaint, called the lawsuit “premature.”

“We’re in the middle of certifying the petitions,” Dunlap said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. “Assuming they have gotten the signatures, we are going to be moving forward [with ranked-choice voting.] If we move forward, the lawsuit will be moot.”

Dunlap also said that his office has been talking to vendors about ballot layouts and options for voting machine tabulations.

“The accusations that we are not doing anything are completely groundless,” he said. “It’s very disappointing that they would take this action now.”

If the people’s veto makes the June 12 ballot, ranked-choice voting would apply to primary and congressional elections.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who supported the 2017 law, said Friday afternoon he hadn’t heard of the lawsuit.

“I’m unsure why they would be filing any sort of lawsuit when they’re still unsure that they have collected enough signatures to stop the reasonable action the Legislature has taken on this issue,” Thibodeau said. “I’ll be curious to learn on what grounds they’re choosing to sue the secretary of state.”

In the proposed ranked-choice system, voters could choose multiple candidates and rank them in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of all votes cast, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and a new tally is done, using the second choices on the ballots for that candidate. The process is repeated until a candidate emerges with a majority of votes tallied.

However, a provision in the Maine Constitution requires a plurality vote — which simply means a candidate wins by receiving more votes than anyone else — in general elections for state offices.

Under the 2017 law that is the subject of the people’s veto, if that amendment isn’t in place by December 2021, the 2016 law would be automatically repealed.

The committee says it collected more than the required 61,123 valid signatures to block the 2017 law and put Maine on track to use ranked-choice voting for federal elections and primaries. The secretary of state’s office is certifying those signatures now.

The system, approved by voters in a November 2016 referendum. created an impasse in the Legislature for most of 2017, with lawmakers rejecting bids to repeal the law or send a constitutional fix to referendum. The law enacted in October was seen as a compromise, though amending the Constitution starts with a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, which given the current political climate and balance of power is not possible.

The Democrats named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are 2nd Congressional District candidate Lucas St. Clair, gubernatorial candidates Jim Boyle, Mark Dion, Mark Eves, Sean Faircloth, Diane Russell and Betsy Sweet, and state Senate candidate Ben Chipman.

BDN staff writer Judy Harrison contributed to this report.

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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.