The fate of Maine’s pioneering experiment in democracy now rests with one man.
U.S. District Judge Lance Walker ruled Thursday morning that the count of ranked-choice ballots in Maine 2nd Congressional District could go on, clearing the way for Assistant Maine House Majority Leader Jared Golden to win the first race of its kind in the United States.
But Walker, a nominee of President Donald Trump, is yet to decide on the merits of U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and three supporters’ suit claiming the method of voting that Mainers approved in 2016 violates the U.S. Constitution. The court fight won’t end with the race being called.
Poliquin, a two-term Republican, promised Thursday to continue his legal challenge to the new voting system that’s made him the first incumbent to lose in the rural, northern district in more than a century.
Based on unofficial totals, neither Poliquin nor Golden won a majority of vote on Election Day. Under the ranked-choice system, this triggered a count of second-choice votes from Mainers who cast their ballots for either of the two independents in the race.
On Thursday morning, Walker denied Poliquin’s request for an injunction to stop the secretary of state’s office from doing a second count of ranked ballots. He heard arguments over the matter in a 2.5-hour hearing in Bangor on Wednesday.
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Fresh to the federal bench, Walker would be the first federal judge in the nation to declare ranked-choice voting unconstitutional if he ultimately sides with Poliquin. But in his Thursday ruling, Walker hinted at skepticism of the congressman’s arguments, writing that he had not demonstrated a likelihood of proving ranked-choice voting unconstitutional.
It’s unclear when Walker will hear the vote-counting case, but it may ultimately go beyond him. When asked Tuesday, Poliquin did not promise not to appeal a decision against him, and Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat, could likewise appeal.
For now, here’s what you need to know about the judge set to rule on ranked-choice voting:
— In October, the U.S. Senate confirmed President Trump’s nomination of Walker, 46, to be a federal judge. The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously endorsed his confirmation in June. Wednesday’s hearing was the second time he has convened a court proceeding since being sworn in last month.
— Walker, who lives in Falmouth and is set to regularly preside in Bangor, rose to the federal bench rapidly. He took up the lifetime appointment roughly four years after Gov. Paul LePage nominated him to be a state District Court judge. He became a Maine Superior Court justice in 2015.
— Before becoming a judge, Walker worked for more than a dozen years in the Portland law firm Norman, Hanson & DeTroy as a trial and appellate attorney. He specialized in complex litigation and insurance law, and became a partner after six years.
— The relatively young justice’s appointment to replace U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock Jr. came as part of the Trump administration’s rapid appointment of federal judges, which is itself the fruition of the Republican Party and right-leaning think tanks’ longstanding effort to get more conservative justices on federal courts.
— Walker has been active in two groups closely affiliated with the GOP, according to a Senate questionnaire. The Milo native has been a member of the National Rifle Association intermittently since 2001. While he was in law school, first at the Vermont School of Law and then at the University of Maine, he was a member of the Federalist Society, a powerful, nationwide group of conservative lawyers that’s been a guide to Trump in selecting judicial nominees.
BDN writers Michael Shepherd and Judy Harrison contributed to this report.