Rep. Bruce Poliquin is right about at least one thing in his seemingly uphill legal fight against Maine’s new ranked-choice voting system: clarity from the federal courts would be good for Maine.
Shortly after the Nov. 6 election, Poliquin and three Republicans who voted only for him filed federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting. An initial order from Judge Lance Walker, which rejected many of their claims about RCV violating the Constitution, belies a difficult road forward for the plaintiffs.
Poliquin, the Republican who has held the 2nd Congressional District seat for four years, earned 2,000 more first-place votes than Democrat Jared Golden, but failed to receive the majority required under ranked-choice voting. Golden then leapfrogged Poliquin in the ranked-choice tabulation last week to win the election with just over 50 percent of the vote.
Regardless of Walker’s eventual ruling, or the result of any subsequent appeal, the process could provide a definitive verdict — and much-needed clarity — on the largely untested ranked-choice system that has already run into constitutional issues at the state level.
Maine voters first approved ranked-choice voting in a November 2016 referendum. In May 2017, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court provided a unanimous, non-binding advisory opinion that Maine’s ranked-choice voting law is “in direct contradiction to the plurality requirements of the Maine Constitution and therefore provide our opinion that it violates the Constitution.”
Maine’s Constitution specifically sets a plurality as the required threshold in elections for state offices such as governor and seats in the Maine Legislature, but is silent on the subject relative to Maine’s federal offices.
The current ranked-choice voting landscape in Maine, where the system is only partially implemented for primaries and federal general elections leaves room for the “potential uncertainty” that Maine’s highest court referenced in its 2017 opinion.
We have previously highlighted the recipe for confusion in using the ranked-choice method in some but not all Maine elections. Voters have twice signaled their support for ranked-choice voting at the polls, but that clear message from the Maine people does not make ranked-choice conflicts with Maine’s Constitution simply disappear.
Given these ongoing concerns, a legal challenge to ranked-choice voting was all-but-inevitable, whether it happened this election or in the future. Poliquin is in the unenviable position of being the first candidate to raise a challenge, and while he and his team must contend with a predictable “sore loser” narrative, that doesn’t make their push for constitutional clarity at the federal level any less important for voters across the state.
If proponents of ranked-choice voting are confident in its constitutionality, they should welcome Poliquin’s lawsuit as a pathway to fending off future challenges.
Even Maine’s top election official, against whom Poliquin and three supporters filed the lawsuit, sees benefit in the legal action.
“I have always said that litigation provides important judicial review of the administrative work in elections, and this case is no different,” Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said.
“The expression of the will of the people is only bolstered by the work of the judicial branch, and we are grateful to the legal teams on all sides for their expertise and close attention to this matter going forward,” Dunlap continued.
A decisive court ruling — for or against Maine’s new voting system — can help resolve lingering questions and bolster trust in Maine elections moving forward. The spectre of a potential ranked-choice lawsuit every time Maine people head to the polls in not healthy for our democracy.