GOP still fighting ranked voting after ballots cast in Maine

FILE- In this Nov. 12, 2018 file photo, an election worker sorts a stack of ballots during a ranked choice voting tabulation in Augusta, Maine. The state's supreme court is hearing more arguments from the Maine GOP, which is seeking to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent ranked choice voting from being used in the presidential contest. (AOP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

PORTLAND, Maine — With the first votes already cast, the Maine Republican Party made a last-ditch request Thursday for the state Supreme Court to stop ranked choice voting in the presidential race — a tense legal battle that could make its way to the U.S.’s highest court.

An attorney for the GOP asked the Maine Supreme Court Thursday for an injunction aimed at halting ranked voting in the presidential race even though 1 million ranked ballots have been printed. As of Thursday, 2,300 military and overseas ballots already had been cast.

“Hasn’t this train already left the station? The voting has already started,” Acting Chief Justice Andrew Mead said.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court already ruled against the GOP, so it would have to reverse itself to grant an injunction. But the Maine GOP is seeking to exhaust all remedies in state court before appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Patrick Strawbridge, attorney for the GOP, argued that the Maine Constitution requires that ranked choice voting in the presidential race be delayed if he can show a likelihood of success on his lawsuit seeking to reinstate a “People’s Veto” referendum.

“We’re not saying that this is an easy situation. We’re not saying it’s no problem. We recognize the gravity of the choices put before the court,” Strawbridge said. He said the poor timing is not the GOP’s fault because it’s following deadlines set by Maine law.

Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner said the GOP’s request should be rejected because the U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled against last-minute election changes that could could confuse voters.

Gardiner said it’s “literally impossible” to print new ballots and voters would be confused if they’re told the presidential contest will be decided by a plurality even though the ballots are in a grid format for ranking candidates.

The ranked choice voting system, approved by Maine voters in 2016, has become a partisan issue after Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin was ousted in 2018 despite collecting the most first-place votes.

Under the system, voters are allowed to rank all candidates in order of preference. A candidate who wins a majority of first-place votes is the winner. If there’s no majority winner, then there are additional tabulation rounds in which last-place candidates are eliminated and votes are reallocated to achieve a majority winner.

The Maine GOP launched a petition drive to stop a state law expanding ranked voting to the presidential race.

But Maine election officials contend the GOP’s signature-gathering drive fell short of the threshold for the ballot.