As ballots in the close race for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District were being brought Thursday to a central collection spot in Augusta for counting, Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin issued a statement claiming a first-round victory.
“We won the election-night total,” Brendan Conley, spokesman for the Poliquin campaign, said in a prepared statement.
A first-round lead is noteworthy in part because in instant-runoff-type elections, it is exceedingly rare that subsequent rounds lead to a different winner. It is also considered a critical step for a candidate who might challenge the legality of ranked-choice voting, since there is no chance to end up the victor in court without capturing a plurality to begin with.
The Associated Press count in the race has the contest deadlocked at 46 percent of the total for each candidate, with 95 percent of the precincts reporting as of 5 p.m. Thursday. Poliquin held about a 1,900-vote lead.
After canvassing towns that had not yet reported their Election Day results, the GOP campaign predicted Poliquin holds a 2,000-vote lead heading into the ranked-choice voting portion of the count.
Democrat Jared Golden’s campaign officials said they are watching the numbers carefully and monitoring what is going on with the Secretary of State’s Office, which will oversee the count.
Gov. Paul LePage, in a radio interview Thursday with Portland’s WGAN, said it was his opinion if the case does go to court, “whoever won the plurality” will wind up in office — and he suggested Poliquin go to court if he falls short in the final tally.
The governor, never a fan of the new voting system approved in two ballot measures by Maine voters, said the ranked-choice option “needs to be taken down.”
Poliquin declined during the campaign to say whether he would abide by the results if ranked-choice voting made a difference in the race. Golden and the two independents in the contest — Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar — said they would not challenge the results.
Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said Thursday on Portland radio station WGAN that couriers will pick up ballots from about 40 percent of the 2nd District towns that count them by hand. In the rest, he said, memory devices from the scanning machines they use will be sent because they contain images of the ballots.
He said counting will start as early as Friday and likely continue for “a few days,” including the weekend.
Once counting begins, any vote originally cast for Bond or Hoar will be redistributed to either Golden or Poliquin if the voter picked one of them before the other on the ranked-choice ballot.
Because there are more than 23,000 ballots cast for the two independents, there are more than enough votes in play to propel one of the two race leaders to victory.
Supporters of the system say it is a way to make sure every vote matters in the end. Detractors argue it is not fair or necessary.
For former legislator John Nutting, having voters make a second, third or subsequent pick while they are at the polling place is a sensible way to save money and prevent another month of painful television commercials.
Poliquin’s campaign, however, touted the success of traditional plurality elections in its news release Thursday.
“Maine’s long tradition of plurality elections has elected leaders such as Margaret Chase Smith, Olympia Snowe, George Mitchell, Bill Cohen and winners of Maine’s presidential elections,” it said.
Voters approved the new voting system for state and federal elections in a 2016 ballot question. Following an advisory opinion from a court, state elections were removed from the system because of a state constitutional issue, but federal elections and primaries continue to use ranked-choice voting.
In June, voters renewed their support for the ranked-choice system.
Employees from the Secretary of State’s Office and courier service drivers take ballots out of vans and into the Elkins Building in Augusta on Thursday. The ballots in the Maine 2nd Congressional District race between U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Lewiston state Rep. Jared Golden will be counted starting Friday under Maine’s ranked-choice system. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)