If recent polls are on target, ranked-choice voting will likely decide the outcome of Maine’s 2nd Congressional District race.

Several polls in the past two months have found that U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a two-term Republican, likely holds a small lead over his Democratic challenger, Jared Golden of Lewiston.

In each case, Poliquin has less than 50 percent of the overall vote, which means election officials will employ Maine’s new ranked-choice system and redistribute the votes collected by the two independents, Tiffany Bond of Portland and Will Hoar of Southwest Harbor.

To put it simply, if the polls prove accurate, any Bond or Hoar votes in the first round will be awarded instead to whoever those voters selected as their second choice on the ballot.

After those pro-independent votes are added to Poliquin’s and Golden’s tallies, the person with the most overall votes will be declared the winner. It’s possible whichever of them has the lead in the first round could lose once all votes cast under the ranked-choice system are added in.

Bond has said repeatedly that voters who do not want Poliquin can safely pick her first and Golden second without hurting the Democrat’s chance of victory.

“The people who are voting for me” are likely to be unhappy with Poliquin, she said Tuesday, so they’re more likely to pick Golden as their second choice than the GOP incumbent.

So far, only one pollster has tried to assess the impact of ranked-choice voting. It found that Poliquin would have a narrow lead in the first round but would ultimately lose to Golden after those second choices are factored in.

A late July poll by The Mellman Group, hired by Golden’s campaign, found Poliquin would be ahead in the initial round of voters, with the GOP incumbent securing 48 percent of the vote compared to 47 percent for the Lewiston Democrat. Bond and Hoar would split the remaining votes.

But when the pollster asked those supporting the independents about their second choices, Golden emerged as the overall winner by a 51-49 margin.

A second Mellman poll in early September found Golden ended up with a 54-46 win.

Those polls may not mean much given that Golden paid for them, but two independent polls that have been made public help fill out the picture.

A mid-August poll of older Maine voters commissioned by AARP Maine found Poliquin held a 40-37 percent edge over Golden — within  the 3.5 percent margin of error — and that the two independents combined to attract 6 percent of the votes. The rest were undecided.

More significantly, a New York Times/Siena College poll in mid-September found that Poliquin held a 47-42 lead, with 11 percent undecided. It did not try to examine the impact of ranked-choice voting.

Another reputable polling source, FiveThirtyEight, also projects that Poliquin has a small lead. It guesses that between 1 and 6 percent of the sprawling district’s voters will pick one of the independents in the first round.

Politico last week switched its ranking for the district from Lean Republican to Toss-Up, matching the forecast of the Cook Political Report and University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

Politico noted that the Times/Siena poll determined that Poliquin is viewed unfavorably by 47 percent of the voters in his district and favorably by 40 percent of them.

It said the favorability rating matters in ranked-choice voting because Golden “could garner some of the anti-Poliquin vote if neither candidate earns a majority on Election Day and the state is forced to count” second choice ballots before it can determine a winner.

Maine is the first state in the country to adopt ranked-choice voting for major elections. It was approved by voters during a 2016 referendum and again in a June referendum.

Ranked-choice voting applies only to primary and federal elections, however, not to elections for state office because the method conflicts with Maine’s Constitution.

It remains possible, however, that someone who wins a general election on the first ballot and then winds up losing because of ranked-choice voting might try to reverse the outcome in court or by convincing the U.S. House not to seat the winner declared by Maine’s secretary of state.

Though there has never been a similar scenario to the one shaping up in Maine, the House has in the past refused to seat the winners in disputed elections, normally reacting to allegations of fraud or corruption in the process.

If the Election Day tallies leave the leader with less than 50 percent of the overall vote, ballots throughout the district would be collected and counted directly by the Secretary of State’s Office in order to apply the ranked-choice voting selections. It may take awhile.

In June, it took eight days after the primary before the state could say for sure that Golden had won the Democratic District 2 congressional primary and Janet Mills had emerged on top as the Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate.

[email protected]

The four candidates vying for Maine’s 2nd District congressional seat are, from left, Tiffany Bond, Jared Golden, Will Hoar and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.