The outcome of Maine’s hotly contested and sometimes bitter 2nd District congressional race will be decided by the ranked-choice voting process.

Maine’s secretary of state announced Wednesday that the race is subject to the ranked-choice counting process because neither of the two leading contenders – Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden – appears to have won more than 50% of the votes cast in the race.

Shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Secretary of State’s Office reported unofficial first-round results that showed Poliquin with a razor-thin 678-vote lead. Poliquin had 46.1 percent of the overall vote while Golden had 45.9 percent of the more than 250,000 votes cast in the race.

Until this year, that would have been enough to send Poliquin, 65, back to Capitol Hill.

Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, seeking re-election in the 2nd Congressional District, greets supporters at his election night party Tuesday in Bangor. Gabor Degre/Bangor Daily News via AP

Under Maine’s new ranked-choice voting, however, voters’ second- and third-place choices will now come into play.

Of the votes cast Tuesday across the sprawling district, about 1 in 12 landed in the column of either Tiffany Bond or Will Hoar, the often-overlooked independents in the four-way battle for Poliquin’s seat in the U.S. House.

The second- or third-place choices of those who voted for Hoar or Bond will almost certainly decide whether Golden pulls off an upset or Poliquin remains in Washington.

Dunlap said he plans to begin the ranked-choice voting tabulation process on Friday. He estimates the results will be released sometime next week.

Until then, Poliquin and Golden are both trying to stay optimistic and patient.

“We are waiting on the results along with the citizens of the state of Maine,” Brent Littlefield, a Poliquin consultant, said Wednesday.

Democratic candidate for District 2 Jared Golden greets his supporters at the Franco Center in Lewiston late Tuesday night. Sun Journal/Russ Dillingham

Golden seemed pleased with the result on election night.

Both Hoar and Bond said they would pick Golden as a second choice.

About 21,500 votes were cast for the two independents. If, for instance, two-thirds of those voters picked Golden second, Golden would receive about 14,000 to Poliquin’s 7,000, for a net increase of about 7,000 votes for Golden – if every voter picked someone beyond a first-place selection.

If Golden captures three in five of those same ballots, his total margin increases by about 5,000 votes, perhaps still enough to win.

Make it a 55-45 share of the independent ballots and Golden gains about 2,000 votes over Poliquin.

To put it another way, a few thousand independent voters going one way or another are going to decide who will represent Maine’s 2nd District for the next two years.

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