When Republican Bruce Poliquin last faced off against Democrat Jared Golden to represent Maine’s 2nd District in the U.S. House he refused to accept the results for more than a month, during which he filed multiple federal lawsuits seeking to stop votes from being counted.

Republican former Rep. Bruce Poliquin speaks during a debate at WCSH in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald

Poliquin, upset to see he had probably lost his seat in the ranked-choice voting election once the second choices of the two independents in the race were counted, erroneously declared he had won “the constitutional” vote and told his followers it was being taken from him by a “black box computer algorithm” and the use of “artificial intelligence” in an “illegal” election.

A federal judge appointed by President Trump cut down his arguments. Poliquin’s supporters had not been denied their right to free expression, Judge Lance Walker ruled, but had “expressed their preference for Bruce Poliquin and none other and their votes were counted.”

Will Poliquin respect the results of this year’s election? His campaign refused to say and ignored multiple requests to speak with the former Republican congressman, who has also refused to say if he accepts that President Biden won the 2020 presidential election.

Poliquin’s attempts to overturn his narrow, 3,509-vote defeat were unsuccessful in 2018 and his room for legal maneuvering would become even narrower after he prompted federal courts to affirm its constitutionality. But political scientists and legal experts say this pattern of high-profile political leaders casting fact-free aspersions on legitimate elections is having a corrosive effect on the health of America’s increasingly vulnerable democracy.

“It’s so profoundly dangerous,” said University of Maine political scientist Robert Glover. “It plants the seed that the system is biased and unfair and this can undermine confidence in election administration going forward. It’s dangerous for democracy.”


Ron Schmidt, professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, agrees. “Any type of government rests to some degree on the population thinking that the government is legitimate, but that’s even more important in a democracy,” he said. “Saying you won because you won the ‘constitutional first round vote’ is like losing a game of chess but saying if it was checkers you would have won.”

Maine voters adopted ranked choice voting by a wide margin in 2016 and defended their decision in a second referendum in 2018, which applied a “people’s veto” to a Republican-led law that effectively repealed the original referendum. It’s been used for Maine’s federal elections ever since, but can’t be used in general elections for state offices because of language in the Maine Constitution adopted after an armed standoff marred the 1879 elections.

Ranked choice is supposed to eliminate strategic voting and angst over supporting a “spoiler” candidate. Under the system, voters receive a ballot on which they can rank candidates by order of preference. If a candidate wins a majority of the first-choice votes, the contest is over and that person is declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and each of their voters’ second choices are added to the tallies of each of the remaining candidates. If there still isn’t a clear majority, the candidate in last place is again removed, and their supporters’ next-highest ranked choices are added to the vote tallies of the survivors. The process continues until someone has a majority or all ballots are exhausted.

In November 2018, Poliquin faced Golden and two independents. After the first round was tabulated he had a narrow lead but had secured less than 47 percent of the vote. His lead narrowed after last place independent William Hoar was eliminated and his supporters’ second-ranked choices were added to the survivors’ vote tally. After the third round – when third place independent Tiffany Bond was eliminated and her voters’ second choices distributed – Golden had won the race: 50.5 to 49.5 percent.

Before the election, Poliquin had told WMTW television that he respected the ranked-choice system saying “the people of Maine made this decision” and “that’s the process we have.” But after the first round results came in – and it appeared his margin was unlikely to prevail as the process continued – Poliquin declared himself the victor of the legitimate vote and filed a federal suit to block the counting of second- and third-round ballots. He would later demand (and pay for) a recount and filed suits to block Maine officials from certifying Golden as the winner and seeking to have himself named the winner or a new election called.

The recount did not change the result and the federal judge was unimpressed. “Maine has devised a manner of holding elections that seeks to realize the perceived benefits of a majority candidate, while avoiding the shortcomings of a runoff election,” Judge Walker wrote, adding that ranked choice “actually encourages First Amendment expression without discriminating against any voter based on viewpoint, factor or other invalid criteria.”


Poliquin – a Harvard-educated, Wall Street investment manager and former state treasurer – falsely told his supporters he had “won on Election Day,” and that the election had been awarded to the “second place finisher” via the use of “the rank voting black box computer algorithm. He has since publicly called it a “complete scam” and last year told a radio audience that he had won the 2018 race but wasn’t seated because of ranked-choice voting.

Drexel University political scientist Jack Santucci, who studies ranked-choice voting, said the system is just as secure and verifiable as a normal election, even if takes a little time to explain the new system to voters. “There are many potential kinds of ranked-choice voting. None of them involves a secret algorithm,” Santucci noted.

Glover, of the University of Maine, said people who criticize new voting methods after losing an election are often trying to take advantage of the “breaking in period” where the new system is being learned by the public.

“It can be to save face – i.e. they couldn’t possibly have lost because they ran a failed campaign – ‘the system must be rigged!’ ” he said. “It can also be a tool to delegitimize the winner and an attempt to undercut their goals and agenda once they assume power.”

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