U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s campaign on Saturday said it’s clear the congressman won a third term in Tuesday’s election and expressed concerns about the handling of ballots during the ranked-choice voting tabulation now underway in Augusta.

Brendan Conley, a spokesman for Poliquin, said the concerns are related to the ballots and ballot boxes that arrived in Augusta, including some that were missing locks.

“There is also a report of a clerk at the Bangor polling station who was tabulating absentee ballots on her own and without any election monitoring, which is illegal,” Conley said in an email. “These are certainly concerning.”

But Maine’s top election official, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, said Saturday night those concerns appear to be unfounded and that “trying to delegitimize the election process is a bit reckless at this point.”

Josh Tardy, attorney for the Bruce Poliquin campaign, right, observes the chain of custody as Department of the Secretary of State staffers move ballots Thursday afternoon in the Elkins Building in Augusta. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Poliquin, a Republican from Oakland, headed into the ranked-choice tabulation with a narrow lead of roughly 2,000 votes over Democratic challenger Jared Golden, according to unofficial estimates. The hotly contested 2nd District congressional race is subject to the ranked-choice counting process because neither of the top two contenders appears to have won more than 50 percent of the votes cast in the race.

Poliquin and Golden each had roughly 46 percent of the votes as of Friday, according to unofficial results compiled by The Associated Press. Whichever candidate reaches 50 percent would be the first member of Congress in history to win in a ranked-choice voting runoff.

The race also included two independent candidates, Tiffany Bond of Portland and William Hoar of Southwest Harbor, who finished a distant third and fourth, respectively, collecting about 24,000 combined votes.

The ranked-choice tabulation of nearly 300,000 ballots from 375 Maine municipalities began Friday in Augusta. By the end of the day Saturday, election officials still had paper ballots from 190 small towns to scan, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. The tabulation will resume Monday despite the Veterans Day holiday.

Election officials expect it will be midweek before a winner is declared.

A message posted Saturday afternoon on Poliquin’s Facebook page said “it’s clear that Bruce won Election Day by a margin of 2,000 votes, defeating all 3 other opponents.

“In any other federal election across America this process would be complete,” the message continued. “Maine is the only state subject to this Rank Choice Voting system which allows people multiple votes, via the reallocation of their vote, if they don’t initially select one of the top two earners. We will continue to monitor this process, as there have been ongoing concerns.”

In a telephone interview Saturday night, Dunlap said the state has a “very rigorous” chain of custody for ballots, “from the printing press to when they’re sealed in a ballot box and beyond.” Ballot boxes that arrived in Augusta without locks contained material such as voting lists that are not used during the ranked-choice tabulation process, he said.

Dunlap also said he had received no complaints about issues at the Bangor polling station.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R- 2nd District Staff photo by Joe Phelan

“Our job is to make sure the vote that was tabulated on election night is a true and accurate representation of what the voters did on Election Day,” he said. “I would wager that if we tabulate the votes and (Poliquin) wins, he’ll be extolling the virtues of the entire process.”

The Golden campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

It is unknown whether Poliquin or the Republican Party would challenge the results and ranked-choice voting if Poliquin loses.

Ranked-choice allows voters to list candidates in order of preference in races with three or more candidates. Those rankings only come into play if no candidate receives majority support – essentially, 50 percent plus one vote – during the initial tally. After that, a computer algorithm works from the bottom of the standings toward the top, reallocating votes for eliminated candidates to those still in the running based on the voters’ rankings. The process continues, round by round, until one has a clear majority.

The race is being watched nationally, as the extent of the new Democratic majority in the U.S. House becomes clear as close races are decided.

An exit poll conducted on Election Day by Fair Vote, professors at Colby College and the Bangor Daily News found that of the 15,500 people who voted for Bond and Hoar and who ranked their choices, Golden would take 93 percent of the votes.

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 9:17 p.m. on Nov. 10, 2018, to remove a reference to rules regarding recounts. Candidates may request a recount within five days after completion of ranked-choice voting tabulations, according to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office.