In this Nov. 12, 2018, file photo, ranked-choice voting ballots are prepared to be tabulated in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District election in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Ranked-choice voting will be used in the presidential election in Maine this fall after the state’s high court ruled that Republicans did not gather enough valid signatures to put forward a people’s veto effort challenging the voting method.

The decision, coming after months of legal challenges and an initial ruling from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court earlier this month that allowed the state to begin printing ballots, is a victory for Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat whose office twice determined that opponents of ranked-choice voting failed to get enough signatures.

It marks perhaps the last twist in a tumultuous effort and brings a historic election this fall, when Maine will be the first state to use ranked-choice voting in a presidential election. Proponents of the referendum faced a shorter signature-gathering season due a shortened legislative session due to the coronavirus pandemic. The long legal battle over the validity of hundreds of signatures prevented the effort from switching into campaign mode.

If Republicans had gathered enough legal signatures, it would have been the third time ranked-choice voting went to voters. Maine GOP Chair Demi Kouzounas said the group was “disappointed” in the decision and exploring potential review options through the federal courts.

The case hinged on 988 signatures collected by two people who were not registered to vote in the towns they lived in prior to circulating petitions. Dunlap argued that should invalidate the signatures they helped gather, while Republicans charged that the secretary of state was wrongly disenfranchising voters. A lower-court judge sided with Republicans in August.

A panel of five judges on the high court disagreed in a 24-page ruling issued Tuesday, saying the requirement that circulators be registered voters in their towns while circulating sets only “reasonable” limits on petitioners. Further, they said being registered to vote is an easy way for the state to determine the validity of the circulator’s petitions and “vital” to quick review.

“We conclude that the government’s interest is sufficient to justify the restriction that the requirement places on petitioners’ First Amendment rights,” the judges said.

The decision comes nearly two weeks before Maine is set to send out absentee ballots to many voters. Overseas and military voters were required to get their ballots by last week. If the court upheld the lower court’s ruling, it would have delayed the law’s implementation until the June 2021 election because of the tight time frame for a ruling.

Dunlap said the ruling comes as a “great relief” because it will help the state avoid the “complications, confusion and expense” that would have come from reprinting and reissuing ballots.

It is a major blow to state and national Republicans, who sank over a half-million dollars into the referendum effort. Republicans have been opposed to ranked-choice voting since it first passed in Maine in 2016 and have led other legal challenges against it up until this year. All have failed.

It is hard to say whether the decision will affect the presidential race in Maine. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee. has held a large lead over President Donald Trump in most statewide polls thus far and has been tied in the swing 2nd Congressional District. 

Also on the ballot will be three third party candidates — Howie Hawkins of the Green Party, Jo Jorgensen of the Libertarian Party and Rocky de la Fuente of the Alliance Party — but they have failed to gain much traction in state or national polls so far.

Correction: A previous version of this report misstated the requirements for being a circulator under the Maine Constitution.