In this Thursday, April 12, 2018, photo, Justice Andrew M. Mead, third from right, asks a question during a hearing in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on whether ranked-choice voting can be used in Maine's June 12th primary, in Portland, Maine. The system lets voters to rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Ranked-choice voting will be used in Maine’s June primary elections, the state’s high court ruled on Tuesday in a massive win for supporters of the first-in-the-nation system that has faced constitutional scrutiny and run a political gauntlet in the Legislature.

The decision from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court allows Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to continue implementing the system for gubernatorial and congressional primaries just before his office needs to finalize state ballots for printing to go to overseas voters later this month.

Implementation of the law lurched into limbo after the court advised last year that the system was partially unconstitutional as it pertains to general elections in state races. Primaries and congressional elections weren’t addressed in that advisory opinion.

The Maine Legislature passed a bill in October that could delay ranked-choice voting until 2021, but the system will be used in the primaries because supporters launched a people’s veto drive to nix that law. Voters will also decide on the people’s veto in the June election.

In a unanimous decision, the high court ruled that ranked-choice voting “is the law of Maine” for the June primaries, throwing out the Republican-led Maine Senate’s questions about whether Dunlap can spend unallocated money on administering the system and hiring private couriers to transport ballots to Augusta for counting — both parts of his plan to implement the law.

Katherine Knox, an attorney for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, which led the 2016 referendum that passed the system, said in a statement that the decision “put to bed lingering questions” about the system’s use in primary and federal elections. A spokeswoman for Dunlap said he was reviewing the decision and would comment on Wednesday.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who led the effort to file the Senate’s suit, said Tuesday evening that he was disappointed with the decision but are exploring ways to make the system work in the June primary.

“At this late date, is takes a super majority of the Legislature for anything to be done with regards to impacting the June primary,” said Thibodeau.

However, the ruling was narrow. Justices didn’t address larger legal questions about the voting system that they voiced last year and during a hastily scheduled hearing last week, including conflicts with provisions in the Maine Constitution that call for statewide elections to be decided by pluralities and not necessarily majorities. Their decision also doesn’t address the general election in November.

Tuesday’s court opinion may not soothe opponents of ranked-choice voting. The Senate’s attorney, Tim Woodcock, told a skeptical high court last week that allowing the system to proceed could cause “an electoral crisis” in which the loser of an election could sue and put the outcome in question.

In ranked-choice elections, voters choose multiple candidates in order of their preference. If no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the total vote, the last-place finisher is eliminated and the second choices of voters who cast ballots for that candidate are used in a retabulation. The process repeats until a winner emerges with a majority of the votes.

The voting method may have a large impact in the June 12 primaries, where seven Democrats and four Republicans are vying for their party’s nominations to replace the term-limited Gov. Paul LePage. Four Democrats are running in a primary for the right to face U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican from Maine’s 2nd District, in the November election.

The ruling takes the issue out of the Legislature, which is scheduled to adjourn this week and where ranked-choice voting has been a partisan issue. Only four Democrats voted for the order that allowed the Senate to go to court on the issue, and Republicans killed a constitutional amendment aimed at allowing the system to move forward last year.

Dunlap, a Democrat, once said that a ranked-choice election could cost up to $1 million more than a regular election, but he told legislators in a letter earlier this month that he expects the June election to cost just under $80,000 more and that the cost could be absorbed by his office.

BDN State House bureau chief Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...