It was a sad week in Augusta. A minority of the House of Representatives may have killed ranked-choice voting in Maine.
The vote was on a bill I co-sponsored to propose a constitutional amendment that would have addressed concerns raised about ranked-choice voting by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The amendment won majority support in a 78-68 vote, but that wasn’t enough to meet the two-thirds threshold necessary to send a constitutional amendment out to voters for approval.
The amendment was never about ranked-choice voting. It was about whether to put the final decision on a voter-approved law back in the hands of the voters, where it belongs. Unfortunately, without a major shift in votes, the amendment is dead, and the path forward for ranked-choice voting is difficult at best.
There is another legislative vehicle in the wings, which would allow for the system to be partially implemented in primaries and federal elections, contests for which ranked-choice voting was not deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, while repealing it for state-level elections. However, many of my colleagues have said they will not support any move that would institute two different election systems in Maine.
If nothing is passed, whether it be the constitutional amendment out to the people, the partial implementation, or the all-out repeal, existing law has the ranked choice voting referendum language. In that scenario, technically, ranked choice voting will be in place and the Secretary of State will continue his efforts to ensure it’s implemented in next year’s election. The issue comes in when any state-level election result could be challenged in court. Hence why we needed to send this back out to the people for a final determination.
It should never have been this difficult. Ranked-choice voting was approved by voters at the ballot box, and the Legislature should have acted decisively and cleanly to ensure the voters’ will was implemented, by whatever means necessary.
Maine has a proud history of political reform, including a first-of-its-kind system of publicly financed elections. But our successes have been limited. If ranked-choice voting is defeated, it will not be the only reform stymied in the Legislature.
Earlier this year, I proposed a bill that would have banned lobbyists and the corporations who hire them from making donations to political candidates or their PACs. The bill would have ended the pay-for-play system that guarantees big corporations and special interests always have a direct line to elected officials. That bill was defeated. I sponsored a bill that would allow voters to recall elected officials who had failed to perform their duties. That bill was also defeated.
Other efforts to limit the amount of money in politics, strengthen the Clean Elections system or open the political process up to more Mainers have faced consistent and staunch opposition by the status quo in Augusta.
Ranked-Choice Voting won at the ballot box because Mainers are eager and energized to once again lead the way toward a better kind of politics. RCV would have encouraged civil campaigns where candidates had to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate, not just their passionate, partisan base. It would have allowed voters to cast their ballots for the candidate or candidate they truly preferred, not just the one they thought had the best chance of winning. And perhaps most importantly, it would have eliminated the so-called ‘spoiler effect’ in multi-candidate races, wherein the candidate with the lowest approval ratings could win by virtue of splitting his or her opposition.
If RCV is defeated, as seems all but certain, we cannot allow that defeat to diminish our will for reform. We must continue to fight for a better kind of politics. That’s what we’ve always done in Maine, and we must continue in that tradition.
No one ever said it would be easy. But the fight is worth it.
Justin Chenette is serving his first term as the youngest senator in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He previously served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. Outside the Legislature, he is owner of Chenette Media LLC, a marketing and public relations firm, and is the president/CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Sign up for legislative updates at www.justinchenette.com or www.Facebook.com/JustinChenette.
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Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco