Maine voters are poised to send the first person to Congress as the result of ranked-choice voting, often called "instant runoff" voting.
Maine's secretary of state announced Thursday that Democrat Jared Golden was the winner of a northern Maine election, unseating Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin. The lawmaker, who sued unsuccessfully to stop the use of ranked-choice voting in his race, has vowed to continue his legal fight.
Voters in Maine adopted ranked-choice voting in 2016 to require that election winners have majority support.
On Election Day in Maine, Poliquin was up by 668 votes over Golden out of more than 250,000 votes cast for four candidates. But Poliquin had only received 46.1% of the votes — putting the past 10 days' drama into action.
Under the ranked-choice voting process, which is only in use in the US in Maine and some cities elsewhere, voters can rank the candidates for a particular office on their ballot from first to last. On Election Day, the first-rank votes are counted. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, that person is the winner. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the person receiving the lowest number of votes is removed from the next round and the people who voted for that person have their second-choice vote counted. If one of the remaining candidates now has a majority of the votes, that person is the winner. If not, the process continues to a next round with the now-lowest vote-getter removed. This continues until a candidate receives a majority of the votes.
On Nov. 7, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap declared that the race would go into ranked-choice voting rounds because no candidate received a majority of the votes cast.
Due to the complexity of the process, the ranked-choice voting rounds are conducted at a central location in Maine, requiring a transfer of ballots, and take extra time.
By the time all votes were counted from the initial round of voting, Poliquin had expanded his lead to 2,001 votes over Golden. Nonetheless, he only extended his plurality to 46.3% — meaning the ranked-choice voting rounds would proceed. Golden had received 45.6% of the first-choice votes. The two independent candidates, Tiffany Bond and William Hoar, received 5.7% and 2.4% of the votes, respectively.
As those preparations got underway, Poliquin decided to fight the ranked-choice voting system — which had already been challenged in court, resulted from two different statewide votes in favor of the system, and was first used in the primary elections this year — by filing a federal lawsuit to stop the system from being used in his race.
Poliquin argued that ranked-choice voting violates several federal constitutional provisions, including those regarding elections, due process, and equal protection. He also argued that it violates the Voting Rights Act.
"While it is true that it does not offend the Constitution if a state permits a candidate for federal office to win by a plurality ... it does not follow that [the Constitution] mandates that all state elections be determined based on a plurality (in the absence of an outright majority)," Walker wrote.
He similarly rejected the requests for an immediate halt to the use of ranked-choice voting on due process, equal protection, First Amendment, or Voting Rights Act grounds.
In discussing the potential due process claims, Walker suggested that it was Poliquin's litigation that could lead to a violation of due process guarantees: "[F]or this Court to change the rules of the election, after the votes have been cast, could well offend due process."
Dunlap released the results of the ranked-choice voting after Walker's ruling.
With the two lowest vote-getters out — apparently due to the fact that the lowest vote-getter only received 2.38% of the first-choice vote, an insufficient percentage to take either candidate over 50% — and their second-choice votes added in, Golden was up by 2,905 votes and had received 50.53% of the vote to Poliquin's 49.47%.
Golden — despite being down on Election Day — would be declared the winner under Maine's law.
Poliquin, however, appeared ready to continue his fight.
"It is now officially clear I won the constitutional 'one-person, one-vote' first choice election on Election Day that has been used in Maine for more than one hundred years. We will proceed with our constitutional concerns about the rank vote algorithm," he said in a statement.