By Jim Ellis
Nov. 15, 2018 — Believing that Maine’s relatively new Ranked Choice Voting system will turn his current plurality re-election victory into a loss, Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Oakland/Bangor) and three others are filing a federal lawsuit asking a judge to halt the instant run-off process before post-election counting begins.
With just a scant number of absentee votes remaining, Rep. Poliquin leads state Rep. Jared Golden (D-Lewiston) by an unofficial 1,910 votes and it is clear that he will finish the final count with a lead. The congressman’s vote total, however, is well below 50 percent meaning the instant run-off will occur.
With two leftward Independent candidates on the ballot attracting just under 24,000 votes, Golden is more likely to gain a substantial majority in the second- or third-ranked choice round, which would likely allow him to pass Poliquin and exceed the 50 percent mark. Thus, we are likely to see a situation where the candidate who placed first in the final general election count will not be awarded the office.
Pine Tree State voters adopted the controversial practice in what most observers believe was a reaction to Gov. Paul LePage (R) winning two statewide elections with less than majority support. In his first electoral contest (2010), LePage, then the mayor of Waterville, was elected governor in a three-way race with only 38 percent of the vote. Four years later, he was re-elected with 48 percent in another three-way campaign.
Independents are often credible candidates in Maine political campaigns and sometimes win those races as in the case of Sen. Angus King (I), for example.
Maine legislators then qualified a ballot referendum asking voters to approve a new electoral system that would guarantee that the eventual election winner scores majority support. Instead of instituting a post-election run-off vote as Georgia does, for example, the Mainers did not want to incur the added expense of running another statewide election even though this would be the fairest way to proceed. Therefore, they conceived of the ranked voting concept.
When voters enter the polling place, they are presented a ballot that contains the offices to be decided. After the actual vote is cast in any contest where more than two candidates are competing, voters then rank their preference for the individuals whom they did not choose.
If no candidate receives an absolute majority, the last place finisher is disqualified and those who voted for him or her as their first choice will have their ballots scanned for their second choice, and perhaps third, and so forth. This process continues until one of the candidates receives a cumulative 50 percent plus one vote majority.
At the state level, the Maine Supreme Court has previously released an advisory opinion at the request of the state Senate leadership about the constitutionality of the Ranked Choice Voting system. The court stated that the system is at odds with the Maine Constitution that explicitly states public office seekers need only be elected by a plurality vote. Therefore, the court advised, the RCV cannot be used in state elections.
The high court panel further stated that it could be used in federal elections or party primaries. It is on similar grounds that Poliquin, et al are challenging the current Ranked Choice Vote system as it is currently administered.
The most prominent use of the instant run-off came in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. Since it took three full weeks to determine the outcome, the Poliquin campaign wanted to file their action prior to RCV commencement. The timing allows them the opportunity to take advantage of the likelihood that this post-election process will be lengthy as well.
The Poliquin legal effort is petitioning US District Judge Lance Walker in Bangor, a Trump appointee, to invoke an injunction to stop the RCV count. The Maine Secretary of State indicates the process will proceed unless a court order instructs them to stop.
It appears this is another campaign that will require a long political overtime, but the instant run-off system makes the situation unique. No other state has ever adopted the Ranked Count Voting process. Therefore, this Maine legal battle could prove ground breaking.