AUGUSTA — State elections officials will likely declare a winner Wednesday in the oh-so-close 2nd District congressional race.

The vote count by the Secretary of State’s Office, which got underway Friday, is going smoothly, officials said, but it takes time to weed through more than 270,000 ballots from 375 towns in the sprawling district.

Though he holds a slim lead in the initial ballot count, Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin has raised concerns about the ranked-choice voting process that might flip the winner to his Democratic challenge, Jared Golden of Lewiston.

Poliquin appears to have locked down the initial round of voting by about 1,900 votes. The figure keeps changing, though, as officials take close looks at the returns from each turn.

“In my world, that’s the Grand Canyon of margins,” Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said.

Because of ranked-choice voting, that margin may not be enough.

In the new system, voters had the chance to rank the four contenders for the U.S. House seat by preference. So the ballots of those who backed the third- and fourth-place finishers — Tiffany Bond of Portland and Will Hoar of Southwest Harbor, respectively — will be redistributed between Poliquin and Golden.

In the second round, ballots are added to the tally of one of the front-runners if the voters who cast them indicated a preference between the two.

Once they are all added in — which a computer can do quickly in a sort of cascading count — whoever gets the most votes, as with any election, wins.

So far, officials have counted and scanned all of the ballots from Androscoggin, Aroostock, Franklin and Hancock counties.

But there are 150 towns left to add in from Kennebec, Oxford, Penobscot, Pisquaticus, Somerset, Waldo and Washington counties.

Julie Flynn, deputy secretary of state for the Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions, said doing the work will take all day Tuesday “and probably into the next day.”

Even though about 95 percent of the ballots are already in the system, she said, there are a lot of logistics involved in plowing through the results from so many small towns.

“We can definitely do it in the next two days,” she said, but probably not Tuesday given the many towns left to deal with.

She said officials are not going to run the final tally until all of the information from all the ballots is available and certified.

Poliquin has said little since his election night promise to monitor the count. Golden said late Sunday that he trust Dunlap and is going to be patient while the ballots are counted.

But both Poliquin’s campaign and the Maine GOP have raised minor concerns about the count that appear to be irrelevant raised concerns on social media and in press briefs.
The most serious of them appeared to be a claim that boxes containing ballots arrived without locks. The GOP provided photos of boxes without the padlocks that most of the rest possessed.

But Dunlap said all of the boxes were sealed properly and arrived at the counting center with the seals intact. The padlocks, he said, were not necessary but a nice thing to  have.

Dunlap said that ensuring the security of the ballots is crucial.

The key to the system, he said, is that every step involved is redundant, from the polling place to the counting room run by his office.

“Nobody’s ever alone with this stuff,” Dunlap said.

In addition, he said, there is a written chain of custody kept by everyone from the printer to the election clerks at polling places to his office that keep track of every ballot, including spoiled ones at the polls and absentee ballots that never got sent back.

Dunlap said the whole system was created after a ballot-tampering case in the 1990s that landed some political operatives in hot water after they got into ballots stored without security at the State House.

He said the process now is far more complex and creates a solid paper trail for everything.

Though he admitted no system is foolproof, Dunlap said he has confidence that the entire process is “logged and journaled” so that it would be difficult for anyone to monkey with ballots.

“Overall, it’s about as secure as human ingenuity can make it,” Dunlap said.

Watching elections officials steadily work through box after box of ballots Tuesday, it appeared they were doing it with care. Knots of employees were sitting at tables double-checking tally sheets together, while several others ran ballots through a high-speed tabulator at the far end of the rectangular training room corralled for the process.

Watching it all were a handful of reporters, lawyers, campaign aides and interested citizens, eyeballing the first-in-the-nation opportunity to apply ranked-choice votes to a congressional election.

Also eyeballing the operation, Dunlap compared it to “watching paint dry.”

For the most part, that is not far off.

Every now and then, however, workers would find something that had tallied wrong.

For instance, in Washburn, a clerk accidentally credited Hoar with 25 votes he did not get. They were shifted to the proper column quickly.

“Bingo, bango, bongo,” Dunlap declared, promising to use the error in future training sessions.

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