AUGUSTA (NEWS CENTER Maine) — It will likely be sometime next week before we know who won the election for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Ballot collection continued Friday for the first-ever use of ranked-choice voting in a race for federal office.
Ballots from about half of the 375 towns and cities in the sprawling 2nd District were collected Thursday, according to Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. While collection continued Friday morning, staff members from the secretary’s office began entering those votes into the special ranked=choice computer system.
Paper ballots are run through a high-speed scanner to be digitized, while computer "memory sticks" from voting machines are loaded directly into the RCV system.
"It's going quickly now, as quickly as we could have hoped for," Secretary Dunlap said.
But in this case, "quick" is relative.
The work is being done by the same staffers who handled Maine’s first RCV count in the June primary. It is detailed work and requires lots of checking and double checking to make sure each community’s votes are accounted for. And every ballot has to be properly entered into in the computer system before the count can be done.
"That’s the one question we’ve been getting," Dunlap said. "When is this going to be done? And we really can’t answer that this early on in the process. After the weekend we should have a better idea where we are."
Republican incumbent Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden are about 2,000 votes apart, out of more than 280,000 votes cast. In any other election for Congress that would make Poliquin the winner. But as a result of a referendum approved by Maine voters in 2016, the race will be decided using ranked-choice voting.
The Maine Supreme Court has said that new law cannot be used in the general election for governor, because the Maine Constitution requires that race be decided by a plurality of the votes, meaning the candidate who gets the most votes wins.
Ranked-choice is designed to have a winner get a majority of the votes, meaning more than half.
The Maine Constitution doesn't define how federal candidates should be elected, and the court has indicated the law passed by Maine voters should be used. However, there has not yet been a specific court case about those elections for Congress and the U.S. Senate.
The Poliquin campaign has hinted that it may challenge the RCV result in court if Poliquin loses the ranked-choice count.
There was no comment Friday from either campaign, though both candidates have lawyers watching the ballot process full-time.
Dunlap said he knows this first-in-the-country use of RCV is going to generate a lot of comment, at least. And possibly a lawsuit. "I think a lot of people with law degrees are paying close attention to what we’re doing here," he said.