By Lisa Soronen
In the U.S. Supreme Court’s first non-COVID-19 related emergency case regarding a state election requirement relevant to the 2020 presidential election, Justice Stephen Breyer refused to overturn a state court decision that allows Maine to use ranked-choice voting.
Maine statute describes ranked-choice voting as a “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.”
The Maine Legislature adopted ranked-choice voting in 2019. However, Maine’s constitution allows citizens to vote on legislation if a sufficient number sign a petition seeking to repeal the legislation. If enough valid signatures are collected, the legislation is suspended until the people can vote on it as a ballot question.
Maine’s secretary of state rejected more than 1,000 signatures as invalid because the circulators who collected them were not registered to vote at their current residence. As a result, the petition to vote on ranked-choice fell short of the necessary signatures, and the election in Maine was to proceed with ranked-choice voting.
Three petitions signers sued Maine’s secretary of state arguing the requirement that petition circulators be registered to vote violates the First Amendment. The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine disagreed concluding that the burden of registering to vote isn’t severe. “[L]ess than two percent of the people who collected signatures for this specific petition were determined to have been unregistered at the time they collected signatures.”
These petition signers asked the Supreme Court to issue an injunction on an emergency basis preventing the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine’s decision from going into effect. The Supreme Court will only issue an emergency injunction when the legal rights at issue are “indisputably clear.” The petition signers argued that the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine applied too lenient of a legal standard when determining the residency requirement didn’t violate the First Amendment.
This emergency petition went to Breyer. He neither asked the secretary of state to respond, nor asked the rest of the Supreme Court to participate in ruling in this case, indicating he didn’t see the case as a close call. He also issued no opinion which is common in the case of emergency petitions.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.