One of the issues raised about ranked choice voting by U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin is misplaced.
During a press conference last week at the Portland’s International Jetport, the two-term Republican, who is challenging his defeat, said one of his concerns is Maine’s new voting system caused a sharp increase in the number of ballots for which voters failed to pick someone in Maine’s 2nd District congressional race.
“There are thousands and thousands of underballots that have been put aside,” Poliquin said. “That is very, very unusual.”
The incumbent, who lost to Democrat Jared Golden of Lewiston, said in a typical race there “might be a few hundred” ballots that are left blank.
“But here, there’ve been thousands and thousands of underballots,” Poliquin said. “And how do you deal with those? That’s an issue.”
The reality, though, is voters in this election cast more ballots indicating a preference in Poliquin’s race than they did in both 2014 and 2016, the two races the Oakland Republican won.
Rob Richie, president of Fair Vote, a group devoted to overhauling the way American election operate, said numbers distributed by Maine’s Secretary of State’s Office showed there were more than twice as many blank votes in the 2016 congressional contest as there were this year.
The numbers he cited for races in 2014, 2016 and 2018 match up with results released by the Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.
Richie said statistics show in 2014, when Poliquin was first elected, 11,532 voters in the district who cast ballots but did not select anyone in the congressional race. Two years ago, there were 12,703 voters who did not make a pick in the congressional race when Poliquin defeated Democrat Emily Cain.
This year, 6,018 ballots were cast by voters who left the congressional race blank on their ballots, Rich said.
Poliquin contends more ballots were uncounted because more than 8,000 of the votes cast for independents Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar did not register a second, third or fourth pick for either Golden or Poliquin in subsequent rounds of the count.
In the final count, the number of blank ballots and ballots lacking a vote for both Poliquin and Golden totalled 14,706 — some of them ruled out because voters cast multiple votes in the same rounds, making them impossible to tally.
Rich said even after a portion of Bond and Hoar ballots are eliminated from the final count because they did not contain a preference for Poliquin and Golden, that number “wasn’t much more” than the number of blank ballots cast in 2014’s three-way congressional race despite a big influx in the number of overall voters in this year’s election.
Statistics show 99.8 percent of 2nd District race voters cast a valid first-round ballot, a higher percentage than in either of the past two elections in the district.
Those voters also cast fewer blank ballots in the ranked choice election for U.S. Senate — which incumbent Sen. Angus King, an independent, won easily — than they did in the gubernatorial race, which lacked the option of ranking candidates.
The 1st District congressional contest, in which U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, came out on top by a wide margin, also saw a big reduction in blank votes.
In 2014, there were 13,089 blank ballots in the 1st district race. Two years ago, there were 14,551. This year, there were 7,910.
The bottom line, Richie said, is that the numbers show that ranked choice voting races “drew more votes than what likely would have happened” without the new voting system.
Poliquin is challenging his defeat by asking for a recount that might not be finished until January, hoping that with more scrutiny of each ballot he can close the more than 3,500-vote lead Golden held after the final, second-round count.
The Republican has also filed a federal lawsuit in a bid to have the state’s ranked choice voting system ruled unconstitutional, perhaps leading to a new election.
Lee Goodman, a lawyer for Poliquin, told the federal court in Bangor on Monday that because some ballots were “exhausted” in the second round — did not indicate a vote for either Poliquin or Golden — neither front-runner received a majority of the votes.
Add in all the votes where somebody was chosen, he said, and Golden earned “a mere plurality” in the second round, so “it necessarily follows that Bruce Poliquin, who earned a plurality on the first round, should have been declared the winner of this election,” he reasoned.
Goodman said the ranked choice voting “manipulations that produced this faux majority violated the Equal Protection, Due Process, and the Voting Rights Act” and underlay his argument that the court ought to reject Golden’s victory.
Lawyers for the state, Golden and Bond are among those who have filed paperwork arguing that Poliquin’s legal arguments have no merit and are unlikely to prevail before federal Judge Lance Walker.
Both the recount and the lawsuit are long shots for the GOP incumbent, whose Capitol Hill office has already been turned over to a newly elected Democrat from New Jersey. Golden is moving into a different office in the Longworth House Office Building.
After the House session adjourned last Friday, a reporter there noted the Maine Republican sat in the empty chamber for another 15 minutes “just taking it all in.”
This article was originally published by The Sun Journal on Dec. 3.