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Journal Tribune
Updated November 9, 2018
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Poliquin claims first-round win; ballots head to Augusta for counting

As ballots in the stunningly close race for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District were being brought Thursday to a central collection spot in Augusta for counting, Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin issued a statement claiming a first-round victory.

“We won the election night total,” Brendan Conley, spokesman for the Poliquin campaign, said in a prepared statement.

A first-round lead is noteworthy in part because in instant-runoff-type elections, it’s exceedingly rare that subsequent rounds lead to a different winner. It’s also considered a critical step for a candidate who might challenge the legality of ranked-choice voting, since there’s no chance to end up as the victor in court without capturing a plurality to begin with.

The Associated Press count in the race has the contest deadlocked at 46 percent of the total for each candidate, with 89 percent of the precincts reporting as of noon Thursday. Poliquin currently holds about a 1,000-vote lead in the sheer number of votes.

After canvassing towns that have not yet reported their Election Day results, the Republican campaign said Poliquin holds a 2,000-vote lead heading into the ranked-choice voting portion of the count.

Democrat Jared Golden’s campaign officials said they’re watching the numbers carefully and monitoring what’s going on with the secretary of state’s office, which will oversee the count. They did not quarrel with Poliquin’s figures because they haven’t checked with many of the tiny towns whose results are not yet known.

“We await the results as the votes are being tabulated,” said Bobby Reynolds, the campaign’s spokesman.

Gov. Paul LePage, in a radio interview Thursday with Portland’s WGAN, said it was his opinion that if the case does go to court, “whoever won the plurality” will wind up in office — and he suggested Poliquin go to court if he falls short in the final tally.

The governor, who’s never been a fan of the new voting system approved in two ballot measures by Maine voters, said the ranked-choice option “needs to be taken down.”

Poliquin declined during the campaign to say he would abide by the results if ranked-choice voting made a difference in the race. Golden and the two independents in the contest, Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar, said they would not challenge the results.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said on Portland radio station WGAN Thursday that couriers are going to begin picking up ballots from about 40 percent of the 2nd District towns that count them by hand. In the rest, he said, memory devices from the scanning machines they use will be sent because they contain images of all the ballots.

He said counting will start as early as Friday and likely continue for “a few days,” including the weekend.

Once counting begins, any vote originally cast for Bond and Hoar will be redistributed to either Golden or Poliquin if the voter picked one of them before the other on the ranked-choice ballot.

Because there are more than 22,000 ballots cast for the two independents, there are more than enough votes in play to propel one of the two race leaders to victory.

Supporters of the system say it’s a way to make sure every vote matters in the end. Detractors argue it’s not fair or necessary.

It isn’t clear what the legal argument might be made against ranked-choice voting.

Maine’s Supreme Court Justice Donald Alexander mentioned at an oral argument in the spring that one possible theory could be that the system violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause that has led the “one person, one vote” standard in American elections.

It’s an argument that’s been made before — and always shot down.

In Minnesota, for example, the state’s highest court found in 2009 that because “every voter has the same opportunity to rank candidates” and “each round every voter’s vote carries the same value,” there is no constitutional problem.

A U.S. Court of Appeals once once ruled that ranked-choice voting is fine because “each ballot is counted as no more than one vote at each tabulation step.”

A Massachusetts court ruled in 1996 that voters are not denied equal opportunity because each has the same chance “to cast a ballot at the same time and with the same degree of choice among candidates” as every other voter.

Though no state has ever used ranked-choice voting for a federal election before, some states have required that a candidate win a majority before taking office, typically relying on special runoff elections between the two frontrunners to choose if nobody gets 50 percent or more.

That’s the way Lewiston elects its mayor. As long as there’s no majority winner, the two candidates with the most votes on Election Day are pitted against each other in a special runoff a month after the general election to make the final selection.

Without the ability to make a second round selection in Lewiston, Ben Chin, who won a plurality in each of the past two mayoral races, would have won.

It’s only because another round of voting occurred that Chin went down to defeat each time.

Under a ranked-choice system, what happens is that there is a sort of instant runoff. There’s no need to hold a second election because it is built into the system.

There’s no need to consider how voters rank any of the candidates unless nobody gets a majority.

If that happens, the candidate with the lowest total — or possibly multiple candidates if they didn’t get enough to have a shot at second place — is dropped from contention and his or her ballots redistributed to the contender listed as the next choice.

Once someone collects more than half the votes, a winner is declared.

For former legislator John Nutting, having voters make a second pick while they’re at the polling place is a sensible way to save money and prevent another month of painful television commercials.

Poliquin’s campaign touted the success of plurality elections in its press release Thursday.

“Maine’s long tradition of plurality elections has elected leaders such as Margaret Chase Smith, Olympia Snowe, George Mitchell, Bill Cohen and winners of Maine’s presidential elections,” it said.

Voters approved the new voting system for state and federal elections in a 2016 ballot question. Following a court ruling, state elections were removed from the system because of a state constitutional issue, but federal elections and primaries continue to use ranked-choice voting.

In June, voters renewed their support for the ranked-choice system.

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