ELLSWORTH — The race for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District was the most expensive, heavily contested race in the state’s history. It may become one of the more litigated.
On Wednesday morning, the race moved to a federal courthouse in Bangor, where U.S. District Judge Lance Walker began hearing arguments on a lawsuit filed by incumbent U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) calling for suspension of ranked choice ballot counting.
After a little more than two hours in the courtroom, Judge Walker announced that he would not make a decision on the matter until Thursday.
Poliquin, seeking re-election to his third term in Congress, filed, along with three other plaintiffs, the lawsuit on Tuesday morning. The lawsuit calls the ranked choice voting process unconstitutional. Poliquin’s lawsuit states that Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution “sets a plurality of vote as the qualification for election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Instead of respecting this important constitutional principle, the RCV Act directly contravenes it by denying individuals who obtained the highest number of votes after the first round of balloting — in this case Bruce Poliquin — from being declared the winner.”
Exit polling data suggested that the Democratic challenger, Jared Golden, could benefit from the ranked choice tabulation, a process approved by Maine voters in 2016 and first used in certain primary elections this past summer.
Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has indicated that his office would continue to tabulate votes regardless of any legal action taken by Poliquin.
“We are aware of the pending litigation. We are continuing to process ballots to complete the tabulation of votes and will continue to do so. If we receive a court order to halt the process we will review it with our legal advisors,” said Maine Secretary of State’s Office spokeswoman Kristen Muszynski in an email to The Ellsworth American.
The Secretary of State’s Office tweeted on Wednesday morning that it had “About 75 towns ballots left to scan, and certification before we can run the tabulation.” That process could be done as early as Wednesday afternoon.
Jared Golden’s campaign responded strongly to Poliquin’s lawsuit. In a statement put out Tuesday, Golden’s campaign manager Jon Breed said “Any attempt by Bruce Poliquin to change the rules after the votes have been cast is an affront to the law and the people of Maine. If Rep. Poliquin’s concerns were anything other than self-interest, he should have filed this lawsuit before the votes were cast, or when the Maine Republican Party challenged Maine’s election system last year.”
The ranked choice vote count began last Wednesday. As the votes flowed in from around the district — the largest east of the Appalachian Mountains — Poliquin and Golden consistently remained neck and neck.
Golden and the incumbent traded lead positions until Friday, at which point Poliquin led by less than 1 percent, approximately 1,900 votes.
But the lack of a 50 percent — plus 1 — majority for any of the four candidates triggered the ranked choice voting tabulation.
On Monday, the Poliquin campaign began to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process, claiming on social media that ballot boxes arriving in Augusta were missing padlocks, and that a clerk at a Bangor polling station was tabulating absentee ballots without an election monitor present.
The Maine Secretary of State’s Office criticized the Poliquin campaign for alleging mishandled ballots, telling the Portland Press Herald on Nov. 11 that “it could get people thinking there is something wrong.”
The League of Women Voters of Maine, which had advocated for ranked choice voting, issued a statement Tuesday night in which it “affirmed its support of Maine’s voter-approved ranked choice voting law in response to the lawsuit filed this morning in federal district court contesting its constitutionality.
“Ranked choice voting has been reviewed by Maine courts four times in the last two years; we have no doubt that the federal court will uphold the law. Ranked choice voting is here to stay as the voters have twice demanded, and we will fight to protect it,” Jill Ward, president of the League of Women Voters of Maine, stated.
“Plaintiffs in the suit filed in federal court today include three voters from Maine’s second congressional district and Bruce Poliquin, the CD2 incumbent. As has been widely reported, no CD2 candidate received a 50 percent majority of first choice votes on Nov. 6. As a result, the ranked choice voting tabulation process was triggered: the candidate(s) with the least support are eliminated and votes for the eliminated candidate(s) were redistributed to voters’ second-choice candidate.
“The League of Women Voters of Maine endorsed ranked choice voting in 2011 because it puts more power in the hands of voters, ensures those elected to office have the broadest support, promotes civility in campaigns and may serve to reduce voter cynicism and increase voter participation,” Ward stated. “These are values we support and believe would improve our election system and stand ready to defend them.”