US Representative Bruce Poliquin, a Maine Republican, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday morning hoping to stop what is on track to be the first congressional election in US history decided by ranked-choice voting.
Poliquin’s reelection contest against Democratic nominee Jared Golden was the most competitive US House race in New England — and one of the most closely watched in the country. Poliquin received the most votes, but under ranked-choice voting, the Democrat, who finished second in the initial round, could come out on top.
Either way a judge decides on the matter will have implications outside of Maine. This could be either the first member of Congress elected by this method or the practice could be ruled illegal, halting a national movement in Massachusetts and other states to expand ranked choice voting.
Last week, Poliquin received 46.3 percent of the vote and Golden received 45.6 percent, with two independent candidates splitting up the remaining 8.1 percent. In any other state or previous election year in Maine, Poliquin would have been officially declared the winner for a third term in Washington.
But this year, Maine implemented a ranked-choice voting system that allows voters to pick their first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on for federal races. Under the system, if a candidate is the first choice of at least 50 percent of voters, then that candidate automatically wins.
If not, the votes of the candidate with the least support are reallocated to whoever those voters picked as their second choice. If that doesn’t push a candidate over 50 percent, then the votes of the candidate with the second fewest votes are reallocated.
Poliquin fell short of the 50 percent mark. So ranked-choice voting has kicked in.
On the ground, Maine’s secretary of state is far from declaring a winner in the race. After it was official that no candidate received a majority of the votes in the first round, all the ballots from around Maine’s Second District were collected by a private courier and brought to Augusta, where the votes have been feeding into a machine since Friday.
It may take several weeks until the process is finished.
But on Tuesday, Poliquin and three other voters from the district filed a lawsuit in US District Court in Bangor to stop the counting. The 25-page filing seeks an injunction blocking the Maine secretary of state’s office from using ranked-choice voting because, it argues, it violates the US Constitution in several ways, one of them being the “one person, one vote” clause.
At a press conference in Augusta on Tuesday afternoon, Poliquin said that it wasn’t clear if ranked choice voting was even legal.
“This is the first example in the country where the voting to elect a federal office holder is illegal,” Poliquin said after declaring himself the winner based on Tuesday’s unofficial returns.
The lawsuit also claims that federal courts in the past have ruled that a candidate who receives a plurality of the votes is what the Constitution defines as a winner.
Golden’s campaign manger Jon Breed said, “Any attempt by Bruce Poliquin to change the rules after votes have already been cast is an affront to the law and to the people of Maine. If Rep. Poliquin’s concerns were anything other than in self interest, he should have filed this lawsuit before votes were cast, or when the Maine Republican Party challenged Maine’s election system last year.
“Bruce Poliquin knew the rules going into this election. The Secretary of State must count every vote according to Maine law until a majority winner is clear,” Breed said.
Maine Governor Paul LePage, a Republican, has called ranked-choice voting “one person, five votes” and has publicly encouraged Poliquin to sue over the issue.
Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court has already ruled that ranked-choice voting cannot be used in state races for governor or the Legislature because Maine’s constitution specifically allows for a plurality of votes to be good enough for a winner.
But the congressional race is a federal race. Even as the lawsuit was filed, Maine’s secretary of state’s office said it would continue its recount of the Poliquin-Golden race.
“We are aware of the pending litigation. We are continuing to process ballots to complete the tabulation of votes and will continue to do so. If we receive a court order to halt the process we will review it with our legal advisors,” said Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.
James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.