Voices & Choices

Maine recount: beware the algorithm

Maine recount: beware the algorithm

Maine made history this month by holding the first congressional elections with ranked choice voting. Now, defeated U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin has come with a warning from the future: beware the algorithm. After the historic election, the congressman lost his seat to challenger Jared Golden by several thousand votes. On Monday, the Poliquin campaign released a statement denouncing “computer-engineered ranked voting” and “artificial intelligence” for making voters “confused and even frightened” during in Maine’s pioneering use of ranked choice voting for federal elections.

What could possibly stop this terrifying rise of the machines? A recount, of course.

Thanks to the Poliquin campaign’s request, this year Maine will have the distinction of holding both the first congressional elections using RCV and the first recount of a congressional election using RCV. Anytime a recount is requested, people inevitably wonder: “Could it change the results of the election?”

The answer is usually no, at least according to the cases FairVote has studied. Only three of the 30 statewide recounts held in the United States since 2000, led to  different outcomes. The 2nd District recount, however, will not be statewide. It is one of two congressional districts in Maine, each containing roughly half of the state’s population. Recounts in House races historically occur more frequently than statewide recounts, but to our knowledge, no one has yet conducted a comprehensive survey of U.S. House race recounts similar to FairVote’s own statewide recounts report.

Nevertheless, we can still use statewide recount data and examples from other House recounts to frame expectations for Maine’s 2nd District recount. Poliquin is 3,509 votes behind Golden, or about 1.247 percent of the vote total.

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The margin shift Poliquin needs far surpasses past recounts. Applying the average margin shift for statewide recounts with under a million votes (there were 281,371 votes in the 2nd District’s final round of counting) would only move about 110 votes. The 2006 Vermont recount, which reversed the initial outcome of that election, had the highest margin shift of any recount FairVote studied for the report but even a shift of that size would only move about 302 votes -- less than a tenth of what Poliquin needs. The Georgia 7th Congressional District recount, which involved nearly the same amount of votes (280,441) as Maine’s 2nd District, shifted the margin by only 14 votes.

Even these modest shifts would not necessarily favor Poliquin, either. FairVote’s report found that recounts caused votes to shift toward the candidate who held the lead initially about as often as they shifted votes to the challenger. The Georgia 7th District recount, for example, ended up expanding the lead of the eventual winner.

History indicates a recount is unlikely to swing the election in Poliquin’s favor or save Maine from the Excel spreadsheet-based computer uprising his campaign forewarns. Short of a glitch in the Matrix, the results of the first federal RCV recount will probably not change the results for the first federal RCV election.

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