Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap answers questions during a Bangor Daily News event in this 2018 file photo. Credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Secretary of State Matt Dunlap appealed a court decision that put a Republican effort to repeal a new law expanding ranked-choice voting to presidential elections back on Maine’s November ballot, his office said Friday.

The latest twist in the battle over what would be Maine’s third referendum on ranked-choice voting in four years comes with a time crunch. Dunlap’s office will begin sending absentee ballots to voters in just five weeks as he argues over the interpretation of a technical state law requiring petition circulators to be registered voters.

Earlier this week, Superior Court Judge Thomas McKeon ruled that Dunlap improperly invalidated 988 signatures on a petition to overturn the law mandating the use of ranked-choice voting in presidential elections, giving the Maine Republican Party just over the 63,067 required to make the ballot. 

Dunlap, a Democrat, initially threw out more than 11,000 of the more than 72,000 signatures that Republicans submitted in mid-June. His office said on Friday that it appealed McKeon’s decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, but it did not provide the filing.

Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said Dunlap’s move amounted to disenfranchising the voters who signed the petitions, saying it is “a sad commentary on what he thinks is important” in an election year while facing a printing deadline.

If the referendum is on the ballot, ranked-choice voting will not be used for the November presidential matchup between president Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Three third-party candidates — Green Howie Hawkins, Libertarian Jo Jorgensen and the Alliance Party’s Rocky de la Fuente — are also on Maine’s ballot this year. Ranked-choice voting will still be used for the high-profile U.S. Senate race.

Support for ranked-choice voting has long fallen along party lines, and partisan sentiments were amplified in 2018 after now-U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, won in a ranked-choice runoff after trailing after the first round of balloting.

A reversal of the lower court’s decision faces a time crunch, as the state must start printing ballots soon. The first round of absentee ballots are set to be mailed on Oct. 2. Dunlap spokesperson Kristen Muszynski said the office is working on layouts for ballots consistent with the lower court’s ruling but will pivot to create different layouts “if time permits.”