In this Nov. 12, 2018, file photo, locked ballot boxes await opening during the vote tabulation process for Maine's 2nd Congressional District's election in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Republican Party said Tuesday it will run a people’s veto challenge against a new law to allow ranked-choice voting in presidential elections in a move that could stop the method from being used in November even if voters turn back the bid.

It could send ranked-choice voting to a statewide referendum for the third time in four years after Maine became the first state to use the method after voters approved it in 2016. That law was later limited to state primaries and congressional elections after Maine’s high court ruled ranked-choice voting was unconstitutional in state general elections. A law to delay implementation was partially rejected by voters in 2017.

That’s why it was first used in the 2018 election, in which U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District, ousted Republican Bruce Poliquin despite a plurality lead for the incumbent after the first round that was offset when enough of the voters who picked liberal-leaning independents as first choices backed Golden over Poliquin in later rounds.

That election has contributed to stark partisanship around ranked-choice voting. A 2018 exit poll conducted by the Bangor Daily News and the electoral reform group FairVote found that 81 percent of Maine Democrats wanted to expand ranked-choice voting and 72 percent of Republicans wanted to stop using it with a slim majority of Mainers backing expansion.

Republicans are targeting a law passed last year by the Democratic-led Legislature that will allow ranked-choice voting to be used in presidential elections here. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, delayed the law’s implementation so it didn’t affect Maine’s March 3 primary but would be in effect by November and in subsequent presidential primaries and general elections.

In a news release on Tuesday, the Maine Republican Party said that move gave it “a major window” to attempt to repeal the law. It can now begin an effort to submit more than 63,000 signatures from registered voters to get a question repealing the law on the November ballot.

If Republicans simply get it to the ballot, the law would be on hold for the 2020 election in which the state party is aiming to shield President Donald Trump as he is expected to push hard to win one elector from the conservative-leaning 2nd District for the second straight election.

Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said the effort won’t distract from other 2020 activities because the party has been planning the ranked-choice voting challenge since last year. He said the referendum will be driven by a “bolted-on auxiliary” team funded by some Maine donors and “significant national support.”

“We believe that voters will go back to the traditional form of Maine elections,” he said.

They’re likely to be opposed by the same campaign effort that drove the 2016 referendum passing ranked-choice voting, which drew almost all of its financial support from large, out-of-state nonprofits. Kathleen Marra, the chair of the Maine Democratic Party, called the bid “an effort to protect President Trump and reject the will of Maine voters.”

The Maine Republican Party last tried to run a referendum in 2015, when it proposed a question pushed by then-Gov. Paul LePage linking an income tax cut with welfare changes. It fizzled by early 2016, however, after the then-chairman said gathering signatures was a “daunting task.”

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...