After Democrat Jared Golden was declared the winner the nation’s first congressional general election to employ ranked-choice voting, Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin launched a court challenge and requested a recount.
Both actions are reasonable, given the ongoing questions about Maine’s new ranked-choice voting system, including its conflicts with the State Constitution. But Poliquin and his representatives have elected to take an unfortunate approach as they make their case in the court of public opinion, using hyperbolic claims that may resonate with their supporters but do so at the expense of overall voter trust and confidence in our electoral system.
This is a dangerous and unnecessary path for Poliquin and his backers to take.
A statement from Poliquin’s camp, for example, raised unspecified claims of fear and confusion about the ranked-choice process from unnamed voters. However, exit polling conducted in the 2nd District by the BDN, which was funded and analyzed by pro-ranked-choice voting group FairVote, indicated that over 74 percent of respondents said ranking choices was either somewhat or very easy.
Poliquin’s team has made noise about the “computer-engineered” tabulation method for ranked-choice voting, casting “artificial intelligence” as a sort of high-tech boogeyman while overstating the complexity of the fairly basic, secure technology.
Poliquin has also repeatedly turned to the suggestion that ranked-choice voting somehow carries less weight in the 2nd District because its voters twice opposed it in the two successful statewide referenda. Despite its regionalist appeal, that argument misrepresents how we conduct statewide elections and plays into an unfortunate narrative pitting the two parts of the state against each other. Following this flawed logic, a Maine governor who wins the overall state vote, but fails to win more votes in one of Maine’s two congressional districts, would lack some level of authority in that district.
If his legal challenge is really “for the people of Maine,” as Poliquin said at a Nov. 13 press conference, he should stick to his constitutional arguments and avoid appeals to fear, chaos and division. He can argue in court that ranked-choice voting is confusing without stoking larger fears of “malarkey” in our elections.
To be sure, not all of the recent ranked-choice confusion has been manufactured or imagined. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and his office were too late and too light on the details in explaining why 6,125 votes from six Maine towns were not initially uploaded properly into the system, ultimately creating a void of information that allowed for understandable, though hyperbolic, frustration from the Maine Republican Party.
While Maine GOP executive director Jason Savage’s assertion that “trust in this system is shaken from start to finish” should be qualified with an understanding that his organization previously and unsuccessfully sued to stop rank-choice voting in the primary, Savage does have a valid complaint about the secretary of state office’s handling of the discrepancy.
Dunlap’s office did send out a clarifying press release one day after first acknowledging the issue, but the confusion surrounding the 6,125 votes raised legitimate questions, and answers should have been clearer and come sooner.
However, that situation, as it has now been explained, should not undermine the overall electoral process that has played out thus far. The ranked-choice tabulation process was transparent, if not mundane, with more than five days of ballot processing in Augusta open to observers and the press.
As Maine goes through this ranked-choice process for the first time in a general election, it’s important to gain a more immediate and first-hand understanding of how all aspects of it work. Learning that a recount could take up to four weeks and watching that process unfold, for example, should be instructive as we assess the new system chosen twice by Maine voters. A lengthy recount doesn’t invalidate the entire system, but does speak to its administrative complexity.
Poliquin’s challenge to the new ranked-choice voting system in federal court, along with a reflection on the system’s efficacy now that we’re seeing it stretched to an extreme, can ultimately provide much-needed clarity on if and how Maine will use the method moving forward. But we can do without the scare tactics and hyperbolic cries of chaos.