A hand recount in the nation’s first ranked-choice election for a seat in the U.S. Congress began Thursday morning in Augusta.

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

The process, if it goes until completed, could take as long as four weeks. Poliquin asked for the recount on Monday, Nov. 26 after Golden was declared the winner of the race.

The ranked-choice election, the result of a ballot box law passed by Maine voters in 2016 and affirmed in June when voters blocked its repeal, is unprecedented in U.S. history – as is the recount itself.

Poliquin, along with three Republican voters, is also suing Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap in federal court to ask a judge to either declare Poliquin the election winner based on the plurality of votes he received in the first round tabulation of the results, or to order another elections.

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 majority support on 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.

Attorneys for Poliquin, Golden, Dunlap and another independent candidate who lost the race were before U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker Wednesday in Bangor. They delivered oral arguments and heard testimony from an expert witness hired by Poliquin’s team to discount the voting process, which allows voters to rank candidates by preference. The process is considered to be an instant runoff election, without the necessity of a separate, special election.

Teams of attorneys and recount participants from both campaigns began the methodical and laborious process of hand-counting ballots town by town, setting aside any “disputed ballots.” 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,” Ben Grant, an attorney working on the recount for the Golden campaign told reporters Thursday.

Grant said he did not believe the recount would change the outcome but 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 above board,” 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.

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, Thursday issued a press release highlighting 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. One voter, Paula Reny, of Boothbay said her ballot included the names of candidates running in both congressional districts.

But Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, 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 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. Both Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor use tabulating machines while the two other towns hand count.

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 either.

“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 713-6720 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: thisdog