By Michael Shepherd

Maine's high court said Tuesday that the state's first-in-the-nation ranked-choice voting system is unconstitutional, throwing the voter-approved law into jeopardy ahead of the key 2018 campaign when it was supposed to be implemented.

In a unanimous, 44-page opinion issued Tuesday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court's seven justices agreed with Attorney General Janet Mills, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap and Republican legislators that the system violates a provision of the Maine Constitution that allows elections to be won by pluralities -- and not necessarily majorities -- of votes.

But Maine's history of plurality elections that colored the referendum approved by 52 percent of voters in 2016 and the non-binding opinion from the high court casts doubt that Maine will pioneer the change in its gubernatorial, congressional and legislative elections.

Gov. Paul LePage was elected with pluralities in 2010 and 2014, though his Democratic predecessor, John Baldacci, also never won the governor's office with a majority. If a ranked-choice system were in place in 2010, the Republican governor likely would have been beaten by independent Eliot Cutler, who placed second then and a distant third in 2014.

The Legislature and Dunlap's office haven't moved to implement the law amid the uncertainty around its legality. Now the Legislature will be under pressure either to throw out the law or amend the Constitution to allow it.

On Tuesday, Sen. Catherine Breen, D-Falmouth, announced she would propose a constitutional amendment to allow it. But that would require the approval of a legislative panel, two-thirds votes in each legislative chamber and another statewide vote to ratify the amendment.

Republicans, who are largely opposed to the new law, could block an amendment in those first two steps and Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, said in a statement that the opinion "reinforces the problems that arise when we send unvetted legislation out to referendum."

The status of ranked-choice voting has also been one of the key issues looming over Maine's 2018 gubernatorial race, where the term-limited LePage will be replaced. The University of Virginia's Center for Politics cited it in April as a reason for calling the Maine race a tossup.

Large fields of Republicans and Democrats are considering running. So far, the two highest profile declared candidates are independent Maine State Treasurer Terry Hayes of Buckfield -- who is supported by Cutler -- and Democrat Adam Cote of Sanford.

(c)2017 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine)