Federal Judge Strikes Down Poliquin's Challenge To Maine's Ranked-Choice Voting Law

This combination of photos show U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin in 2017, left, and state Rep. Jared Golden in 2018, right, in Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP File Photo)
This combination of photos show U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin in 2017, left, and state Rep. Jared Golden in 2018, right, in Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP File Photo)

A federal judge has struck down Republican Congressman Bruce Poliquin’s legal challenge to Maine’s ranked-choice voting law and his request to invalidate the runoff he lost to Democrat Jared Golden.

The 30-page ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker is a significant blow to Poliquin’s quest to retain his seat, as well as Republicans’ vigorous campaign to challenge the legality of election law Maine voters approved two years ago.

Not only did Walker disagree with the array of constitutional claims Poliquin’s attorneys made against the law, but he also declined to grant Poliquin’s request to order a new election in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District race.

“As I indicated in my order denying Plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order, there is no dispute that the RCV Act (ranked-choice voting act) — itself the product of a citizens’ initiative involving a great deal of First Amendment expression — was motivated by a desire to enable third-party and non-party candidates to participate in the political process, and to enable their supporters to express support, without producing the spoiler effect,” he wrote. “In this way, the RCV Act actually encourages First Amendment expression, without discriminating against any voter based on viewpoint, faction or other invalid criteria. Moreover, a search for what exactly the burden is that Plaintiffs want lifted is not a fruitful exercise.”

He added, “I fail to see how Plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to express themselves in this election were undercut in any fashion by the RCV Act,” Walker wrote. “They expressed their preference for Bruce Poliquin and none other, and their votes were counted.”

Poliquin’s attorneys made several claims against ranked-choice, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference and uses an instant runoff tabulation if no candidate obtains an outright majority on Election Day. Among their claims is that the runoff prevents voters from strategically ranking candidates because, unlike a traditional runoff that takes place on a different day, they don’t know which candidates will advance to the final round.

During last week’s oral arguments, James Gimpel, a University of Maryland professor who was paid $300 an hour by Poliquin’s attorneys to stand as an expert witness, said voters were effectively blind and “clueless.”

But Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner, who represents the Secretary of State, countered that the purpose of ranked-choice is to allow voters to more broadly express their preferences, not to see whether voters can correctly guess winners.

Walker also dismantled another claim that ranked-choice violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment because voters who only pick one candidate could have less say in the eventual outcome than those who rank multiple candidates.

“Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that their votes received less weight,” he wrote. “They understood that a majority victory was the standard to avoid a second round of ballot counting.”

Walker, who was appointed by President Trump in April, also rejected the claim that the U.S. Constitution requires states to hold elections in which winners are determined by a plurality — or the most votes.

Poliquin, a two-term Republican, was the first incumbent to lose a 2nd District race since Democratic Congressman Daniel McGillicuddy was defeated in 1916.

Since Golden emerged as the apparent winner in the nation’s first ranked-choice runoff in a federal race, Poliquin and Maine Republicans have raised questions about ballot security, the party affiliation of a staffer at the Secretary of State’s office, the software used to tabulate the runoff and, more recently, the prospect that ballots for the 2nd District contest were somehow distributed to 1st District municipalities.

Maine election officials have attempted to ignore most of the allegations and dismissed most of them as Republican attempts to undermine confidence in a ranked-choice system that replaced a plurality system that often benefited GOP candidates.

Poliquin has also requested a recount of the race, a laborious endeavor that appears to have little chance of reversing the runoff result, but could delay certification of the election by the Secretary of State. The recount could also allow Congressional Republicans to challenge the seating of Golden when the new Congress is sworn in Jan. 3.

Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters last week that the U.S. Constitution gives the U.S. House of Representatives final say in determining its membership — meaning Golden will likely be seated because Democrats will soon have the most seats.

Golden’s team has said Poliquin’s recount request could also hurt 2nd Congressional District constituents seeking federal assistance.

A version of this story was first published by Maine Public.



More from WBUR

Listen Live