On Election Day, Maine voters used an innovative voting method called ranked-choice voting (RCV) to choose the federal candidates on their ballots. After a court challenge and heated public rhetoric, RCV determined the outcome in one congressional race outcome for the first time in U.S. history. But it still faces significant opposition and limited use in the Pine Tree State.
Maine became the first state to deploy RCV in its primaries back in June. While groundbreaking, RCV has been limited by state constitutional language stipulating that state legislative and gubernatorial general races must be decided by a plurality of voters. So, RCV was used only in the federal elections this time around. In Maine, that meant one U.S. Senate contest and two House races. Two of the three races were settled on election night, with Representative Chellie Pingree, a Democrat and Senator Angus King, an Independent, winning majorities.
But in Maine’s largely rural, working class Second Congressional District, no candidate won a majority. That impasse gave RCV its first real chance to work. The contest pitted Bruce Poliquin, a two-term Republican incumbent with ties to the finance sector, against Jared Golden, a Democratic state lawmaker. The race also included two independent candidates.
The RCV framework is simple: voters rank candidates by order of preference rather than simply choosing one candidate. If no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the lowest number of top rankings is removed from consideration, and their voters’ second choices are distributed to the remaining candidates. This tabulation process continues in a series of rounds until one candidate has a majority.
The method has been widely promoted as a way to bring moderates back into the political process. After all, candidates won’t want to alienate large swaths of the electorate with overly heated rhetoric or they may not end up with the second and third place votes that could decide the election. The interest in RCV grew in Maine after Tea Party Republican Paul LePage won his first gubernatorial race in 2010 with less than 40 percent of the vote.
The day after the election, ballots were quickly transported from each municipality to Augusta, so that the Secretary of State could complete the scanning of ballots and the ranked choice tabulation to determine a winner. The race that would be decided was a close one.
Golden, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, started the race with steep odds. After all, no challenger had defeated an incumbent in this district in over 100 years. But during the campaign, polls showed a considerable narrowing of the gap between Poliquin and Golden. Three polls in October showed the two candidates in a statistical dead-heat.
Prior to the election, Republican incumbent Poliquin had expressed some concerns about RCV but ultimately suggested it was the will of the Maine voters and “not [his] decision.” He added that, while he supported the previous system, “the people of Maine have gone through that process now and that's the process that we have.”
His tempered support for the policy came as no surprise.
The Maine Republican Party has consistently opposed RCV, taking stands against the change in the two citizen referendums. The first passed in November 2016 and a second in June 2018 which upheld the original vote, after the GOP questioned the measure’s constitutionality and raised concerns about RCV’s fairness and practicality.
The party even launched an unsuccessful lawsuit after Republican primary ballots had already been printed in 2018, seeking to suspend RCV’s use for the Republican Party and instead only count its voters’ top rankings.
Maine Democrats and Jared Golden on the other hand endorsed a citizen’s initiative earlier in the year to protect RCV’s use. During a debate, Golden also stated that he would be ranking himself first and the independent candidates in the second and third slots. Poliquin instead encouraged his supporters to rank him and only him.
Preliminary exit polling on Election Day suggested that Poliquin was likely to lose as subsequent rankings were tabulated. The close race and his limited likelihood of gaining an advantage as rankings for independent candidates were tabulated, meant the once unthinkable could happen—an incumbent could lose the district.
That possibility set off another round of conservative attacks. Poliquin began to raise doubts about the integrity of the count and the legality of using RCV to determine the winner. Within a week, Poliquin filed a lawsuit to stop the Secretary of State’s tabulation of ballots before a winner could be determined. Poliquin made a hodgepodge of constitutional. But the judge, appointed by President Trump, saw through it, casting doubt on the constitutional claims and denying Poliquin’s request for a temporary restraining order.
The message was clear: you can’t change the rules of the game once you’ve played.
Instead, what the weakness of Poliquin’s claims and the assertion of fraud by the Maine GOP revealed was a party seeking to delegitimize the results and prevent a Democratic upset. (It’s no surprise given similar claims being made by Trump and Florida Governor Rick Scott in the contentious Sunshine State Senate race.)
After the lawsuits were dismissed and the count was completed, Jared Golden was declared the winner with a majority of the vote, becoming the first U.S. House member to win after a ranked choice process.
The ballot tabulations revealed an interesting pattern. Over 35 percent of the independent candidates’ supporters (roughly 8,000 voters) chose not to rank Golden or Poliquin. These “exhausted ballots” suggest that for many independent voters, RCV provided an opportunity to register dissatisfaction with both major party candidates.
A majority of Mainers favor extending ranked choice to other races, like the gubernatorial and state legislative races. However, using RCV for state races faces an uphill battle as moving in that direction would involve amending the state constitution.
Meanwhile, as Golden prepares to move to Washington, Poliquin vows to continue fight against ranked choice voting. A big question now looms over whether other states will soon follow suit.
The answer may hinge on what happens after Poliquin gets his next day in court.