Bruce Poliquin goes to court Wednesday to stop ranked-choice vote count

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AUGUSTA — Declaring himself the winner in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District race, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin filed a lawsuit Tuesday in a bid to stop state officials from counting the rest of the ballots and throw out the ranked-choice voting system that Mainers twice approved.

Because he holds a first-round lead in the four-way contest, Poliquin told reporters at a State House news conference, “I won the election, fair and square.”

Though Poliquin holds a lead of more than 1,500 votes over Democrat Jared Golden in the preliminary count, that is only the beginning of the process of figuring out which man will triumph.

The Secretary of State’s Office is scanning more than 270,000 ballots in the sprawling district in an exceedingly dull and utterly methodical process expected to finish Wednesday.

Instead of waiting to see who emerges the victor once the ballots are all available for a computer to figure quickly the final outcome of the race, Poliquin’s lawyer will be in court at 9 a.m. Wednesday for a hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker in Bangor to ask him to call a halt to the count.

Golden’s campaign, which asked to intervene in the case, has a different take on the issues at stake.

“Bruce Poliquin knew the rules going into this election,” said Jon Breed, the Lewiston Democrat’s campaign manager. “The secretary of state must count every vote according to Maine law until a majority winner is clear.”

Under ranked-choice voting, ballots where the first-place votes were cast for independents Tiffany Bond or Will Hoar — who came in so far behind they cannot come out on top — will be redistributed to the front-runners based on who was ranked higher by each voter who indicated a choice.

Based on exit polls, internal party polling and political instincts, insiders from both campaigns suspect that Golden will wind up with enough extra votes to emerge the victor once all the ballots are factored in.

But that is not a sure thing.

Rather than wait and see, Poliquin is hoping to cut the “convoluted and chaotic” process short by convincing a federal court to issue a restraining order that forces clerks to stop tallying votes.

It is not clear why Poliquin called ranked-choice voting so confusing given that there is little evidence voters were puzzled and no sign that Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap’s office is experiencing significant obstacles in dealing with the ballots from 375 municipalities.

Dunlap said his office will keep plowing ahead with the count unless told to stop.

Asked if he was heading to court because he feared losing, Poliquin responded, “That is simply not true.”

Poliquin said it would be “a heckuva lot easier on me if I just walk away from this vote-counting mess.”

“Not addressing this important constitutional matter would be completely irresponsible and not doing my job,” Poliquin said.

One difficulty for Poliquin is it is uncertain what a court could do, even if judges prove sympathetic to his claims that the voting system is not legal.

Poliquin insists that if ranked-choice voting is improper, it means that the first-round votes alone should be counted — an outcome that would send him back to Capitol Hill for a third term.

But Drew Penrose, Fair Vote’s law and policy director, said Tuesday that “even if a court were inclined to side with Poliquin, it would struggle to identify a remedy” since all four candidates “campaigned in a ranked-choice voting election and the voters ranked their choices according to the rules in place.”

“It would be unfair to everyone involved to declare Poliquin the victor based only on first choices,” he said.

Breed said the people in the district voted with ranked-choice options in mind.

“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,” Breed said.

“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.”

Amy Fried, chairwoman of the Political Science Department at the University of Maine, said that during the campaign “Poliquin recognized the system and provided guidance on how his backers should vote.”

“He did not say he considered it unconstitutional or that he would sue after the election to prevent voters even finding out who won according to the election law in place last June and this November,”Fried said.

Poliquin was the only one of the four candidates during the campaign who refused to say he would abide by the outcome of the ranked-choice vote. Golden said all along he would accept the final vote whether he won or lost.

Poliquin is not the only one named as a plaintiff in his lawsuit. Among the other three: Brett Baber, chairman of the Penobscot County Republican Committee.

The Maine GOP has complained for years that ranked-choice voting is unconstitutional. But Maine voters approved it in 2016 and endorsed it again in a June ballot question.

While it is a new concept in Maine, the principle behind it is no different than runoff elections that are common in a few states and many municipalities, including Lewiston’s mayoral races. It is just that instead of holding a separate election, voters rank their picks so that instant runoffs can be done without another round of balloting.

The League of Women Voters of Maine, which helped push for the new voting system, said it is confident the courts will not side with Poliquin.

“Ranked-choice voting is here to stay, as the voters have twice demanded, and we will fight to protect it,” said Jill Ward, the League’s president.

Poliquin said the law ought to be that the winner of a plurality of the vote is the victor. Though he said it is a constitutional requirement, there is nothing specifically in the Constitution to support that.

The document that defines the federal government’s powers, though, does say, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.”

It also declares the U.S. House ”shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members.”

The Democrats, who take control of the House on Jan. 3, are unlikely to accept Poliquin’s arguments if Dunlap declares Golden won the election.

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U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin tells reporters in Augusta on Tuesday why he is asking a federal court to toss out Maine’s ranked-choice voting system and declare him the winner of the 2nd District congressional race. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)

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