The Maine Supreme Judicial Court held today (quite correctly, I think, given the Maine constitution’s text):

The Senate seeks our opinions regarding the constitutionality of a statute recently enacted through citizen initiative, which established ranked-choice voting for elections of United States Senators, United States Representatives, Governor, State Senators, State Representatives, and federal and state primaries in Maine. …

The term “ranked-choice voting” is defined by the newly enacted Act as “the method of casting and tabulating votes in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, tabulation proceeds in sequential rounds in which last-place candidates are defeated and the candidate with the most votes in the final round is elected.” As defined, ranked-choice voting contrasts with the statutory description of Maine’s previous system of single-choice voting, by which voters voted for a single candidate for each seat. …

The Ranked-Choice Voting Act provides for tabulation in rounds. If there are only two candidates, the candidate with the most votes wins and that candidate will necessarily win by a majority. If, however, there are more than two candidates, upon completion of the first round of tabulation, and unless one candidate has received a mathematical majority of the votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and a new round begins in which all votes cast for the eliminated candidate are reviewed and redistributed — this time to account for those voters’ second-place choices. Successive rounds become unnecessary when the candidate with the most votes has a majority of votes or all ballots have been exhausted. …

Pursuant to Me. Const. art. IV, pt. 1, § 5, the election of State Representatives is accomplished “by a plurality of all votes returned”; pursuant to Me. Const. art. IV, pt. 2, § 4, State Senators are elected by “a plurality of the votes in each senatorial district”; and pursuant to Me. Const. art. V, pt. 1, § 3, the Governor is elected “by plurality of all of the votes returned.” [Footnote moved: A plurality refers to the “highest number of votes.” A majority, in contrast, refers to “more than one-half.”]

The Act, in contrast, provides for the tabulation of votes in rounds. Thus, the Act prevents the recognition of the winning candidate when the first plurality is identified. …

If, after one round of counting, a candidate obtained a plurality of the votes but not a majority, that candidate would be declared the winner according to the Maine Constitution as it currently exists. According to the Act, however, that same candidate would not then be declared the winner.

Instead, the candidate, though already having obtained a plurality of the votes, would be subject to additional rounds of counting in which[, for example,] second, third, and fourth choices are accounted for and the lowest vote-garnering candidates are successively eliminated. Once those additional rounds are completed, a different candidate may be declared the winner — not because that second candidate obtained a plurality of the votes (which the first candidate had already obtained), but because that candidate obtained a majority of the votes after eliminating other candidates by taking into account the second, third, and fourth place preferences, or because the ballots have been exhausted. In this way, the Act prevents the candidate obtaining a “plurality” from being named the winner unless and until multiple rounds of vote-counting have occurred. …

Ranked-choice voting might be a good policy idea, but adopting it in Maine would take a state constitutional amendment, not a statute.

Thanks to Robert Dittmer for the pointer.