Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap works with Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, right, during the ballot-tabulation process for the election in Maine's 2nd Congressional District in Augusta, Nov. 13, 2018. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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Lawmakers will hear public testimony Wednesday morning on what’s perhaps the most likely ranked-choice voting proposal to gain any real traction this legislative session: a bill to use the process when voting in presidential primaries and general elections.

The bill from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, would shift Maine from party-run presidential nominating caucuses to state-run primaries, which the Legislature has been working on since 2016. But Secretary of State Matt Dunlap is warning that applying ranked-choice voting to the arcane presidential election process could be complicated.

The bill is probably politically palatable in the Democratic-led Legislature after past partisan fights on the issue. Jackson’s bill is clearly the best hope for the expansion of voter-approved ranked-choice voting with the 2020 presidential election looming. The method has already been through legal fights at the state and federal level that have more or less defined the elections to which it can apply. Maine’s high court deemed it unconstitutional for state-level general elections in 2017.

It was implemented in 2018 for congressional and state-level primaries and congressional general elections. Since then, Democratic lawmakers have proposed constitutional amendments to apply the method to all state-level races, but those require a two-thirds vote in both chambers. Republicans are likely to stop that in the current Democrat-dominated Legislature.

Jackson’s bill doesn’t need to clear that bar, so Democrats could send it to Gov. Janet Mills by a majority without a single Republican vote. Every legislative Democrat voted for the 2017 constitutional amendment and every Republican opposed it.

Kyle Bailey, who managed the ranked-choice voting referendum in 2016 and the one to uphold it in 2018, said his group’s lawyer has found no constitutional hurdles for Jackson’s bill. But complexity — not constitutionality — is probably the hurdle for the bill now.

The bill would apply ranked-choice voting to races where electors — not candidates — are chosen and Dunlap says that risks being ‘opaque’ for voters. The Legislature’s voting committee will take testimony on Jackson’s bill today at 9 a.m. at the State House. Bailey’s group will push it, the Maine Republican Party is whipping opposition to it and the office of Dunlap, a Democrat, is taking no formal position on it.

But the secretary of state outlined some technical concerns around the bill in a Tuesday interview. Chief among them is that unlike congressional elections, presidential elections are indirect. In primaries, voters select delegates chosen at party conventions. In general elections, voters pick members of the Electoral College also chosen at conventions.

For now, Jackson’s bill simply says that primary delegates would be allocated according to party rules. In general elections, two electors would be bound to vote for the candidate who won the most votes by congressional district and two others for the statewide winner.

Dunlap said because of that, lawmakers “risk being a little bit opaque” about how candidates are eventually elected under the ranked-choice rules in both the primary and general elections, adding that it’s something lawmakers will have to consider going forward. We’ll get a sense of how they could resolve some of those issues — or if they want to — today.

Midcoast lawmaker goes on leave again

A state representative has gone on medical leave after past struggles with substance abuse and a 2017 drunk-driving conviction. Fourth-term Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, has been excused from votes in the House of Representatives in February and March. Katie Walsh, a spokeswoman for the Democratic caucus, said he’s on “extended medical leave” with no set return date, though his bills are moving forward with the help of legislative aides.

Devin’s phone went straight to voicemail on Tuesday. House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, replaced Devin on the marine resources and environment committees last week. He is a Navy veteran and marine biologist who worked at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center.

He was charged with operating under the influence in June 2017 and went on leave from the Legislature after that, pleading guilty later that year. After the incident, he checked himself into a facility to address “substance abuse and other health concerns,” according to the prosecutor.

Today in A-town

It’s another heavy day of committee meetings, with proposals to implement ranked-choice voting in presidential elections and restore workers’ overtime protections likely to draw attention. After the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee’s public hearing at 9 a.m. on Jackson’s ranked-choice voting bill, the Labor and Housing Committee this afternoon will hold a work session on LD 402, from Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono. It would raise the minimum salary that an employee must earn in order to be exempt from certain laws limiting overtime pay. Tune in here.

The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee will also consider a bill just after 10 a.m. that would fully fund public school programming for students with special education needs. LD 791, from Sen. Dave Miramant, D-Camden, would require the state to fully fund these public school programs beginning in 2021. It’s the latest attempt to address school administrators’ longtime complaint that federal and state special education programming requirements are unfunded mandates. Listen here.

Reading list

— Maine took a step toward replacing Columbus Day with a holiday that honors native people. The House of Representatives voted 88-51 for a bill that would change the October holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day. All but two Democrats voted for the bill. All but four Republicans voted against it. At least five Maine municipalities have already made the change. The state bill, which requires further votes in the Senate and House, does not change the fact that the federal holiday is still called Columbus Day or that it’s still a work day for BDN employees.

— Waterville’s controversial mayor is creating more headaches for Maine Republicans. In his role as vice chair of the Maine Republican Party, Nick Isgro sent out a series of tweets linking immigration with new outbreaks of once-eradicated diseases. Maine Public reports that the tweets, which drew expected condemnation from Democrats and their allies, elicited a range of reactions from within Isgro’s party. Some fellow Republicans condemned Isgro’s remarks, while others have been avoiding them altogether. Isgro, meanwhile, is standing by his assertion that Americans should be free to not vaccinate their children against disease.

— A Maine shipyard could lose millions of dollars earmarked for facilities upgrades if the president takes money from the defense budget for his southern border wall. The York Weekly reports that Portsmouth Naval Shipyard might have to mothball several key projects if already promised money is diverted. Funding could be slashed for the $110 million superflood basin for Dry Dock 1; a $62 million paint, blast and rubber facility; $42 million for an extended portal crane rail; and a $12 million warehouse. According to the Defense Department, some $6.8 billion in projects already approved by Congress in fiscal year 2019 are in jeopardy.

— Environmentalists are sounding the alarm about contaminants in sewage and sludge used as fertilizer. The Associated Press reports that the Environmental Health Strategy Center held a media event Tuesday to highlight that sludge spread at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel was a source of perfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS. The environmental group and the farm are raising concerns about two weeks after Mills created a task force to review PFAS prevalence. The harmful substances also have been linked to contamination of at least one York County drinking water supply. The Legislature’s environmental committee will hold a hearing on PFAS today. Click here to listen.

Spring into action

Today marks the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, which remains one of the two most popular hemispheres on Earth.

In Maine, we typically celebrate the change of seasons by shoveling, cursing frost heaves, eating ice cream cones through chattering teeth while freezing in parking lots at just-opened dairy stands or pouring maple syrup all over everything.

That all fits nicely with our stoic Maine character, but we should consider turning it up a notch. I suggest adopting the Swiss spring ritual called Boogg. [Insert umlauts over each O if you are an originalist.]

To welcome spring with Boogg, the Swiss since the 16th century have been burning snowmen at the stake. To add to the fun, they often stuff the snowmen with fireworks. Click here to watch the explosive equinox extravaganza. One can only assume that they make s’mores with amazing Swiss chocolate after the flames die down to a safe level.

So much for the notion that Switzerland is only inhabited by sedate peace-loving, watch-winding, “Heidi”-watching chocoholics.

Boogg seems like it would be much easier to adapt in Maine than some other spring rituals. In Poland, people have been “drowning” a straw doll called a Marzanna since the 16th century as part of a ritual to welcome spring. In Maine, if we tried to drown a doll in March, it would just sit sadly on the ice like an abandoned smelt shack.

In the Bosnian city of Zenica, residents welcome spring with Cimburijada, which translates to “Festival of Scrambled Eggs.” It’s basically a socialist hunters breakfast, which would not fly in Maine.

In Valencia, Spain — which rhymes with Maine — the population triples for a week of spring-loaded celebration.

“The week begins with processions to honor Saint Joseph and ends with the incineration of ninots, paper-mache figurines stuffed with firecrackers. Festival goers often wear medieval clothing for the nonstop street party to welcome the spring season.”

Sounds like just any other week at the State House to me. Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

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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...