Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine GOP, speaks about efforts to repeal a law applying ranked-choice voting to presidential elections in this June file photo in Augusta. The party's effort failed to make the November ballot, according to Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine will be the first state to ever use ranked-choice voting in a presidential election in November after Secretary of State Matt Dunlap ruled Wednesday that a Republican-led people’s veto effort did not have enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

The Maine Republican Party gathered just over 61,000 signatures, which was roughly 2,000 shy of what was needed to get the challenge on the ballot, Dunlap’s office said in a statement. The party faced a shortened and complicated signature-gathering season due to the coronavirus.

The decision is a surprise and a huge blow to Republicans, who have resisted the voting method particularly since the 2018 election in which U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, ousted incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin.

The effort would have brought Maine’s third referendum on ranked-choice voting in four years. It was also a nationally backed bid to shield President Donald Trump from the voting method in 2020, since getting the measure on the ballot would have delayed the law’s effective date. The Republican president won the 2nd District in the 2016 election.

Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said on Wednesday that he was “shocked” at Dunlap’s decision. He said the party had not been given “a single bit of evidence as to what happened here” and signatures were collected “by the book.”

In a Wednesday evening release, Maine Republican Party Chair Demi Kouzounas said the party’s fight to get the question on the ballot was “not over.”

“It is abundantly clear that the Secretary of State used every trick in the book to throw out enough signatures through a litany of technicalities to keep this question off the ballot,” Kouzounas said.

If Dunlap’s decision stands, the party had massive problems with a high-dollar effort. A political committee established by Republicans to handle the effort spent more than $517,000 on the effort as of June 30 and received another $95,000 in in-kind contributions, according to state filings.

At a June news conference, party officials said they had gathered 72,000 signatures. Dunlap’s decision said roughly 11,000 were knocked off. Over 3,500 were eliminated because they were not certified by the registrar as belonging to a registered voter in a municipality. Another 2,600 were not counted because they were duplicates and 1,100 were invalidated because they were not validated by a registrar within the required time frame.

Ranked-choice voting was expanded to presidential contests last year by the Democratic-led Maine Legislature during a special session. Gov. Janet Mills declined to sign the law, but she allowed it to take effect without her signature in January to keep it from affecting the March presidential primaries.

The Republican effort looked to wipe out the law at the ballot in November. Ranked-choice would have remained in effect for the congressional elections and primaries for state offices that it applies to now.

The 2020 referendum bid also faced a legal challenge in April from the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, which championed the 2016 referendum that established the method of voting in Maine. It asked a state court to block the people’s veto effort, arguing Maine’s Constitution does not allow the people’s veto process to be used for laws that are already in effect.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.