A federal judge on Thursday rejected Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s constitutional claims against ranked-choice voting and denied the incumbent’s request for a new election against Democratic Rep.-elect Jared Golden.

U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker ruled that, contrary to the arguments of Poliquin’s legal team, the U.S. Constitution does not require that whichever congressional candidate receives the most votes – or “a plurality” – be declared the winner. Instead, Walker ruled the Constitution grants states broad discretion to run elections and that “there is nothing inherently improper about an election that requires a contestant to achieve victory by a majority,” including by the use of the ranked-choice runoff system endorsed twice by Maine voters.

“To the extent that the Plaintiffs call into question the wisdom of using RCV, they are free to do so but . . . such criticism falls short of constitutional impropriety,” Walker wrote. “A majority of Maine voters have rejected that criticism and Article I (of the U.S. Constitution) does not empower this Court to second guess the considered judgment of the polity on the basis of the tautological observation that RCV may suffer from problems, as all voting systems do.”

Maine made history in November by becoming the first state in the nation to use ranked-choice voting in a congressional election. But Poliquin and some Republican allies – including state party leaders – are hoping to turn Maine’s 2nd District race into a national test case for the use of ranked-choice voting in federal elections.

Walker’s decisive ruling struck a blow to those attempts on Thursday and moved Golden one step closer to replacing Poliquin in Washington. A separate recount of the 2nd District race is underway at the Maine Secretary of State’s office but has yet to yield any major discrepancies that would appear to put Poliquin on a path to victory.

Golden, a 37-year-old Marine Corps veteran and state lawmaker from Lewiston, emerged from last month’s ranked-choice ballot tabulation with a 3,509-vote lead over Poliquin. Maine law required the ranked-choice runoff because none of the four candidates in the 2nd District race – Golden, Poliquin or independents Tiffany Bond and William Hoar – secured a majority of votes in the first tally of ballots on Election Day.

It was unclear Thursday whether Poliquin or the three other plaintiffs in the case – all 2nd District voters – would appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals. His office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

In a statement posted on Twitter, Poliquin once again suggested that many Mainers were confused by the ranked-choice process and alluded to unsubstantiated claims of a small number of wrong ballots being distributed at some polling places. But the Republican did not indicate directly whether he will appeal.

“From the beginning, I’ve made it clear this Constitutional voting rights issue goes far beyond one election,” Poliquin tweeted. “Now that Maine voters have experienced the complicated and confusing Rank Voting in a real general election, it’s more important than ever to ensure that every Mainer is able to cast his vote legally and fairly.”

Golden’s campaign said it was clear with each passing day that the Democrat Golden “is the unquestionable winner” of the race to represent Maine’s rural, sprawling 2nd Congressional District.

“It is time to govern, and I look forward to taking my seat in the 116th Congress on January 3rd,” Golden, a Marine Corps veteran and state lawmaker from Lewiston, said in a statement. “Judge Walker’s decision is clear. It is now my hope that Congressman Bruce Poliquin will work with my team to facilitate a smooth transition of power for the people of the 2nd Congressional District.

In his 30-page ruling, Walker rejected the Poliquin campaign’s arguments that ranked-choice voting violated the equal protection clause and the due process guarantees of the U.S. Constitution. Walker wrote that the plaintiffs supplied no evidence to support their claims that the ranked-choice ballots were too confusing for voters.

Walker also dismissed the plaintiffs’ argument that the ranked-choice process somehow violated voters’ First Amendment rights and essentially granted some voters more than one chance to influence the election. Maine voters approved the ranked-choice system, Walker wrote, “motivated by a desire to enable third-party and non-party candidates to participate in the political process, and to enable their supporters to express support, without producing the spoiler effect.” The fact that Poliquin and the three other plaintiffs opted to only vote for Poliquin – and not rank the other candidates – was entirely their choice, he wrote.

“In this way, the RCV Act actually encourages First Amendment expression, without discriminating against any voter based on viewpoint, faction or other invalid criteria,” Walker wrote. “Moreover, a search for what exactly the burden is that Plaintiffs wanted lifted is not a fruitful exercise. I fail to see how plaintiff’s’ First Amendment right to express themselves in this election were undercut in any fashion by the RCV Act. They expressed their preference for Bruce Poliquin and none other, and their votes were counted.”

Walker’s ruling was no surprise. The Bangor-based judge, who was appointed by President Trump earlier this year, had poked holes in some of Poliquin’s constitutional claims in an initial opinion rejecting the campaign’s request to halt the ranked-choice runoff.

It remains unclear whether Golden will be seated with his U.S. House colleagues on Jan. 3 because of both the court case and a hand-recount of the nearly 300,000 ballots cast in the 2nd District on Election Day. That recount began Dec. 6 and is expected to take several more weeks to complete.

Leaders of the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, which led the two successful campaigns to enact the system at the ballot box, praised Walker’s decision.

“The Court in no uncertain terms and with no contingencies or cautions ruled today that the people of Maine have a right to choose the way we elect our leaders,” said Cara Brown McCormick, the committee’s treasurer. “With this historic ruling, we predict that Ranked Choice Voting will sweep the nation.”

Maine became the first state in the nation to utilize ranked-choice voting in statewide elections this year.

The process allows – but does not require – voters to rank candidates in order of preference on their ballots for races that have three or more contenders. If one candidate wins a majority on the first tally of votes, the election is over and that person is declared the victor. But if no one receives a majority, however, voters’ ranked preferences will be used to decide a winner.

The candidate with the least number of votes after the first tally is eliminated from contention and their supporters’ votes are reallocated to the remaining contenders based on each voter’s ranked preferences. The process continues – with candidates being eliminated from the bottom up – until one person has received a majority of the remaining vote pool.

The 2nd District race was the most expensive in Maine history and one of the costliest nationwide this election cycle as the candidates and outside groups poured more than $24 million into the contest.

Both Poliquin and Golden received roughly 46 percent of the vote on Election Day – both well short of the 50 percent plus one vote threshold needed to win outright under Maine’s ranked-choice system. While Golden trailed Poliquin by about 2,500 after the first vote tally, he surged past the Republican incumbent by picking up more second- and third-choice preferences of voters who had ranked Bond or Hoar as their first choice.


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