Maine election officials, including Democratic Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, right, began counting ballots on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Augusta for the Second Congressional District's House election. The election is the first congressional race in American history to be decided by the ranked-choice voting method that allows second choices. Credit: Marina Villeneuve | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature backed bills to expand the state’s novel system of ranked-choice voting to pick the winners of new presidential primaries and the general election, but adjourned for 2019 on Thursday leaving the ranked-choice switch in limbo.

The Democratic-led Legislature made the change on Wednesday, the last day of the 2019 legislative session in two bills that snuck up on many. After an initial vote, the Maine Republican Party issued an email alert saying Democrats “are trying to ram this through at the last minute.”

Ranked-choice voting has been a deeply partisan issue, particularly since U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, narrowly beat Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin in a 2018 race that was decided by the later-round choices from supporters who picked one of two longshot candidates as their first choice.

The Maine House of Representatives voted 86-59 on Wednesday after a 20-14 Senate vote for a bill applying the method to presidential elections, but the Legislature adjourned early Thursday without enacting it. The chambers did, however, send a bill to Gov. Janet Mills’ desk that would switch Maine from party-run nominating caucuses to a state-run primary in March.

The switch from caucuses to primaries has been a priority since messy party caucuses in the 2016 election, but it passed along party lines with Democratic support ahead of a 2020 election where more than 20 well-known Democrats are running for the nomination to run against President Donald Trump, a Republican who isn’t expected to face a tough primary challenge.

Maine would have presidential primaries for the first time since 2000 at an estimated cost of $122,000 next year if Mills, a Democrat, signs the bill from Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth.

A 2016 referendum made Maine the first state to adopt ranked-choice voting statewide, but legislative tweaks motivated by conflicts with the Maine Constitution have limited its use so far to congressional elections and state primaries. State general elections are decided by pluralities.

Even after Democrats took over the Legislature in the 2018 election, it looked like a longshot that ranked-choice voting would expand. Republicans can block the two-thirds votes in both chambers required to send a constitutional amendment to voters.

That made expanding the system to presidential elections — which needs no constitutional fix — the best bet for the system to advance, though it could be dicey in practice.

Primaries are state-run elections, but parties make the rules about how they affect the allocation of delegates to state and national conventions. Spokespeople for the Maine Democratic and Republican parties didn’t answer questions about how it could affect them on Wednesday.

Ranked-choice elections can also take longer to decide than plurality elections. It could endanger the timeframe of the Electoral College, which meets on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December to officially elect the president. A recount in the Golden-Poliquin race threatened to stretch into January before it was called off.

With the primary switch, Maine would join a growing list of states that are dumping caucuses for primaries. Only Iowa and Nevada have firm plans to hold them in 2020, and 10 former caucus states are poised to hold primaries, according to FiveThirtyEight.

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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...