Maine’s highest court found Tuesday that the ranked choice voting system passed at referendum last November violates the Maine constitution.

In its advisory opinion, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court acknowledges the validity of citizen-initiative ballot questions but notes that even citizen-enacted laws can be unconstitutional.

“The object must always be to 'ascertain the will of the people,'" the court notes. “Nonetheless, when a statute – including one enacted by citizen initiative – conflicts with a constitutional provision, the Constitution prevails…”.

The law fundamentally changed the way voters select the state’s top elected officials – legislators, the governor and Maine’s four congressional delegates. In ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has more than 50 percent after the first tally, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters who chose the eliminated candidate have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidate and the ballots are retabulated. The process continues until one candidate has a clear majority and is declared the winner.

But Maine’s constitution calls for candidates to be selected by plurality, in which the candidate with the most votes in an initial round of voting wins.

“According to the terms of the Constitution, a candidate who receives a plurality of the votes would be declared the winner in that election. The Act (the ranked choice system), in contrast, would not declare the plurality candidate the winner of the election, but would require continued tabulation until a majority is achieved or all votes are exhausted.

"Accordingly, the Act is not simply another method of carrying out the Constitution’s requirement of a plurality. In essence, the Act is inapplicable if there are only two candidates, and it is in direct conflict with the Constitution if there are more than two candidates,” the opinion stated.

In February, the state Senate asked the court to offer guidance after some opponents of the new law questioned whether it complies with the constitution. A key question was whether revising the electoral system can be done with a simple change in state law or requires a more complex constitutional amendment. The Senate also asked the court to consider the issue a so-called, “solemn occasion” which means the decision needs to be made urgently.

“The Act is presently in force and will dictate how the votes from that election will be processed,” the court’s opinion stated. “The potential for a constitutional challenge to those election results and ensuing upheaval is real. Although the next election in which the ranked-choice voting system will be used is many months away, those months will be consumed with creating the documents, systems, and technology necessary to provide a credible election procedure.

“Both campaigning and voting will be substantially affected by the nature of the voting process. The time to plan and organize a fair and impartial election is at hand and the doubt surrounding the constitutionality of the Ranked-Choice Voting Act casts uncertainty on all aspects of voting preparation.”