Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, speaks at a rally of supporters of ranked choice voting at the State House in this 2018 file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Advocates for Maine’s first-in-the-nation ranked-choice voting system filed a lawsuit in state court on Wednesday that seeks to halt a Republican challenge to a new law expanding the method’s use to presidential elections.

The complaint, filed in the Kennebec County Superior Court by the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting against Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, alleges that the people’s veto process does not apply to the new ranked-choice voting law because the law is already in effect.

The Democratic-led Maine Legislature passed a law in July 2019 expanding ranked-choice voting to include presidential elections, but Gov. Janet Mills declined to sign the law, instead allowing it to take effect without her signature when the Legislature returned in January.

In February, the Maine Republican Party announced a bid to repeal the law through a people’s veto, which would set up a November referendum on the law if the party gathered enough signatures. A pending referendum would also delay implementation of the law, meaning ranked-choice voting would not be used for the 2020 presidential election.

Dunlap’s office approved the party’s initiative, giving them until 90 days after the end of the legislative session to collect the 63,000 signatures necessary for a referendum. The Legislature adjourned early due to the coronavirus, setting a deadline of June 15 to get the required signatures to put the law to a vote, about a month earlier than originally anticipated.

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The lawsuit, however, alleges that Dunlap’s office misinterpreted Maine law when allowing the people’s veto process to move forward. Although the ranked-choice law was not codified until January, laws not signed by the governor “have the same force and effect” as if the governor had signed them in the same timeframe that the Legislature passed them, the suit states.

Under the Maine Constitution, the people’s veto process is specified for laws that have not yet gone into effect, the lawsuit argues. Only a citizen-initiated referendum, the plaintiffs say, can repeal a law that is already in effect. The suit says Republicans would still have that option.

In a statement on Thursday, Maine Republican Party Chair Demi Kouzounas said the lawsuit had “no merit,” saying the issues it raised had already been addressed by Dunlap’s office when the people’s veto campaign was authorized.

The party also raised concerns that the plaintiffs’ interpretation could nullify the results of the March 3 presidential primary if ranked-choice voting was supposed to be used in that case as well. A Dunlap spokesperson said the office would not comment on pending litigation.

Maine voters initially approved ranked-choice voting in November 2016, then upheld the law in June 2018 after legislative attempts to delay it. The original law was altered to only apply to state primaries and congressional elections after an advisory opinion from Maine’s high court.

The system was first used in the 2018 midterm elections, when now-U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, narrowly beat incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin in the 2nd Congressional District. Golden initially trailed after the first round of ballots but picked up votes in later rounds after reallocation from two liberal-leaning independent candidates.

That election furthered the partisan divide over ranked-choice voting. A 2018 Bangor Daily News exit poll found that 81 percent of Maine Democrats wanted to expand the use of ranked-choice, while 72 percent of Republicans wanted to stop using it altogether.