In this July 8, 2017 file photo, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap speaks during a voter registration meeting at the National Association of Secretaries of State conference in Indianapolis. Credit: Darron Cummings | AP

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap told lawmakers Thursday that ranked-choice voting likely can’t be implemented in time for the June primary election, causing supporters of the voting method to threaten legal action to ensure it is in place.

The revelation comes as a bombshell, with Dunlap’s department attempting to rush through new rules about how the system approved by voters in 2016 would work. Those proposed rules were submitted Wednesday but could now be moot if the plug is pulled.

[Maine backs ranked-choice voting proposal, but legal hurdles remain]

At issue is a people’s veto petition that was conducted after the Legislature passed a law last year delaying implementation of ranked-choice voting until the Maine Constitution is amended to accommodate it. Technically, the people’s veto blocks an amendment made to the 2017 law and apparently reverts to prior statutes that stipulate primaries be determined by plurality — which means whoever garners the most votes, not a majority as called for in ranked-choice voting.

Dunlap said ranked-choice voting can’t occur in June without fixing wording conflicts that an analyst flagged on Wednesday, and that either the Legislature or Maine’s court system must act swiftly if he is to have time to implement the system and prepare for the June 12 election. Originally, he said the correction must be made by Monday, but later Thursday he said the fix must be in place within a few weeks.

Maine must have ballots available to overseas voters by April 27, according to Julie Flynn, deputy secretary of state in charge of elections. On Thursday, she told the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which oversees elections, that staff would need time before that date to design ballots.

“We have to get ballots printed, that’s the bottom line,” Dunlap said.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, who said she was notified of the issue by Dunlap’s office on Thursday, called for the Legislature to immediately fix the problem.

“The will of the people must not be thwarted by some technicality in the law,” said Mills, who said she would file the necessary legislation Thursday.

The prospects of such a bill passing are slim, with most Republicans and Gov. Paul LePage staunchly against ranked-choice voting. That means the measure would need two-thirds support in both the House and Senate to be implemented as an emergency and to override a veto.

Dick Woodbury, chairman of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, said his organization will seek a court-ordered injunction in an attempt to force Dunlap to implement the system in time for the June 12 primary. The group previously joined eight gubernatorial candidates in a February court action designed to compel Dunlap to implement ranked-choice voting for the June 12 primary.

“All Maine people should be stunned by this latest affront to democracy and to the rule of law,” Woodbury said in a news release.

A citizen-initiated petition led to a 2016 referendum in which Maine voters approved use of the system, but the Legislature enacted a law in 2017 that called for an amendment to the Maine Constitution before the system could be used. Under that law, if that didn’t happen by December 2021, the ranked-choice voting system would be nullified.

However, supporters of ranked-choice voting launched a people’s veto petition of the Legislature’s law, which was certified as valid by Dunlap in March. That petition forces a question on the June ballot asking whether voters want to cancel the Legislature’s law and put ranked-choice voting in place for the long term.

Supporters also argue that the presence of the people’s veto on the June 12 ballot forces Maine to revert to the previous law, mandating ranked-choice voting for congressional and primary elections, which are not specifically addressed in Maine constitutional language requiring that the person who receives a plurality of votes be declared the winner in gubernatorial and legislative elections.

The Legislature was in session Thursday but is not scheduled to return until Monday. LePage has 10 days to act on any bill sent to him, so even if lawmakers pass an emergency measure to fix the problem Dunlap identified, the governor could hold the bill until close to or past the deadline the secretary of state set for ballot preparation.

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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.