The recount that began Thursday in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District race could leave the seat vacant and the district without representation when Congress convenes in January.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and a Republican House staff member involved in the seating decision issued conflicting opinions on the matter Thursday, making it uncertain whether Maine will have a 2nd District representative if the recount isn’t completed before new members of Congress are sworn in Jan. 3.

Workers from the Maine Secretary of State’s Office gathered in a converted conference room Thursday and started the arduous task of hand-counting the 300,000 ballots cast in the election, which saw Democratic challenger Jared Golden beat incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin by about 3,500 votes.

Poliquin asked for the recount on Nov. 26 after Golden was declared the winner. Poliquin also has filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the ranked-choice voting system.

Courtney Parella, a spokeswoman for the Committee on House Administration, said Thursday that Golden has been participating in new member orientation and was assigned an office suite, but wouldn’t be sworn in without an election certificate from the state.

“We swear in based on when we receive the certificate of election from the state, so until we receive that, the office will remain vacant,” Parella said.

Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, said Dunlap would not issue an election certificate in the race until the recount – a process that could take up to four weeks – was completed or ended. However, the recount will break for the holiday week of Dec. 24, meaning it is unlikely to be completed before the House swearing-in Jan. 3.

“The clerk of the U.S. House has requested certificates of election for Congress by Dec. 14, but our office does not anticipate issuing a certificate of election for Congressional District 2 until the recount is concluded,” Muszynski said in an email.

Pelosi, the California Democrat who is expected to be elected speaker of the House by the incoming Democratic majority, indicated that Golden would be seated by Congress. Even though Golden has vowed he wouldn’t vote for Pelosi to become speaker again, she seemed to defend his election Thursday during a news conference in Washington.

Pelosi also reiterated that under the U.S. Constitution, the House of Representatives ultimately decides who is seated in the body, indicating that with Democrats in the majority, Golden would be seated.

“The House still retains the right to decide who is seated,” Pelosi said. She also specifically mentioned Republicans challenging the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting in Maine.

“They have ranked voting, which has been voted on twice by the people in Maine, as their method of having an election,” Pelosi said. “Now (the Republicans) have a question on the constitutionality of ranked voting, in their view.”

CALLING FOR ‘SMOOTH TRANSFER’

Pelosi mentioned Maine as she took questions about other election controversies, in North Carolina and Florida.

“If they (Republicans) had won, of course, there would be no question about the constitutionality of it,” she said.

Golden’s campaign spokesman, Jon Breed, said Golden should be seated Jan. 3 and that the congressman-elect was continuing to prepare for that, including attending a conference for new members of Congress at Harvard University in Boston on Thursday.

“Attempts by the Poliquin campaign to delay Jared from taking his seat do nothing more than hurt the people of the 2nd District,” Breed said. “No one expects Poliquin to prevail in his recount, and rather than trying to delay, he should do the right thing for the people of the 2nd District and facilitate a smooth transfer between his office and Jared’s.”

Maine’s ranked-choice ballot law allows voters to designate second and third choices on their ballots. Those preferences only come into play if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first vote tally. In such situations, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their supporters’ votes are reallocated to the candidates they ranked second.

That process continues – with candidates eliminated from the bottom up – until one candidate secures a majority, 50 percent of the votes plus one.

While Poliquin led the vote count after the first round, he was short of 50 percent. That allowed Golden to pull ahead after two independent candidates were eliminated and their supporters’ second- and third-choice votes were redistributed.

AFFIRMING PUBLIC TRUST IN THE VOTE

Teams of attorneys and recount participants from both campaigns began the methodical and laborious process of hand-counting ballots town by town Thursday. Both campaigns must agree for a ballot to be counted, and any disputed ballots are set aside. The process will repeat itself for each round of ranked-choice voting as the teams hand-tabulate the second- and third-choice preferences of voters whose candidates were eliminated from contention.

“It’s a boring kind of a rote job, you are just looking at little black dots,” said Ben Grant, an attorney working on the recount for the Golden campaign.

Grant does not believe the recount will change the outcome, but said Golden’s campaign was amenable to the process for the sake of establishing confidence in Maine’s election processes.

“I think it’s important that people trust that elections are fair and are conducted aboveboard,” Grant said. “It’s an unfortunate delay, but it does help with the public trust in the process.”

Josh Tardy, an attorney for Poliquin, said so far, only minor irregularities had been found, things like stray markings on ballots but nothing that revealed any serious problems with the balloting.

“This will be an important check to see how the ranked-choice tabulation that was done by a computer bears out when the actual votes are counted by real humans,” Tardy said.

Poliquin paid a $5,000 deposit to start the process and will be charged for the state’s full costs of the recount if the result of the election does not change. Poliquin and his supporters have argued the hand recount is necessary because the state used a secretive computer software that depended on “artificial intelligence” and a “black box” system that is not transparent.

CLAIMS OF WRONG BALLOTS

But supporters of the process and of Golden have said that while Poliquin is within his rights to ask for the recount, the rhetoric used to make the request seeks to undermine confidence in Maine’s election systems.

Once started, Poliquin could ask to stop the recount if he believes he won’t overcome the more than 3,500-vote deficit by which he lost when results were announced in November.

Meanwhile, Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, issued a media release Thursday that highlights the sworn statements of voters from coastal towns in Maine’s 1st Congressional District who are claiming they received a ballot for the 2nd District when they voted. Paula Reny of Boothbay said her ballot included the names of candidates running in both congressional districts.

But Muszynski, the spokeswoman for the secretary of state, said the ballot tabulating machines were programmed to only accept ballots from the correct district. Muszynski said the machines are tested to ensure they are working before the start of an election, and that a ballot that was incorrect for the municipality would have been rejected.

“In hand-count towns, counters would see that the candidates on that ballot are incorrect and they would not count votes in that race either,” Muszynski said.

Savage highlighted voters in four towns: Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor, Edgecomb and Trevett. Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor use tabulating machines, while the two other towns hand-count ballots.

Michelle Farnham, the town clerk for Boothbay Harbor, said there no reports of incorrect ballots in her town on Election Day. Farnham also said no ballots were rejected by the town’s tabulation machines.

“It would have spit the ballots out if they were incorrect, and we did not have any ballots spit out,” she said.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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