Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, center, and other election workers handle ballots on Friday, June 15, 2018, during ranked-choice vote tallying in Augusta. Credit: Christopher Cousins

State election workers forged new ground Friday when the process of counting ranked-choice voting kicked off with political observers hovering to ensure they do it right.

In Augusta, workers loaded information from memory sticks to computers while others fed paper ballots through a tabulator capable of counting 300 ballots a minute. That process will continue until early next week, when all the ballot information is finally loaded into the system. Then, a keystroke or two on a single laptop computer will compute the first-round totals in a matter of moments.

That will answer questions about whether the four relevant races will require ranked-choice voting. At present, unofficial returns compiled by media outlets indicate that ranked-choice tallying will be necessary in at least two contests — the Democratic gubernatorial primary and the Democratic primary in the 2nd Congressional District.

In the latter race, early returns compiled by the Bangor Daily News show that Jared Golden of Lewiston garnered 49.2 percent of the vote. The threshold to prevent the election from going to ranked-choice tallying is 50 percent. Lucas St. Clair of Hampden earned about 41 percent of the vote while Craig Olson of Islesboro earned about 9 percent.

Ballots and voting information from about 300 towns had been delivered by private courier to Augusta by Friday morning, with most of the remaining 203 expected by the end of the day. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said it is expected that a few ballot deliveries will take until Monday, but that any delays could stop the whole tallying process.

“If there’s a town where we can’t track down the materials, that could hold up everything,” Dunlap said.

Approximately 60 drivers are involved in gathering ballots. Dunlap said meticulous records are being kept about who is handling which ballots so that the chain of custody is preserved — which could be crucial in any recounts.

Speaking of recounts, Dunlap said emergency rules are still under development for that possibility, which he hopes to put in place by Monday.

Other issues will have to be addressed, including how ranked-choice voting could affect the recognition of minor political parties in Maine. Currently, a party’s gubernatorial candidate needs to earn 5 percent of votes in a statewide election for the party to retain official recognition. But the ranked-choice voting law does not address whether those must be first-choice votes or if lower ranked choices should count toward the threshold.

In another quirk, first-place votes for Jonathan Fulford, a Democrat who withdrew from the 2nd District primary, would be counted as blanks. But the second choices of voters who picked Fulford first would be counted in subsequent rounds of ranked-choice tabulation.

Dunlap said there are a number of issues like those to address — but not until this election is over.

“We’re trying to get through a burning barn in a gasoline suit right now,” he said. “We’re not going to stop to milk the cows.”

Observers were pleased with the process. Kate Knox, an attorney for the Committee for Ranked-Choice Voting, said she was “not surprised at all that it’s going very smoothly.”

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.