AUGUSTA, Maine — A federal judge rejected a lawsuit Thursday by a Republican incumbent from Maine who lost the nation’s first congressional election held under a candidate-ranking system.
Democrat Jared Golden defeated Bruce Poliquin in the November contest, which allowed voters to rank up to four candidates. Poliquin won the most votes but failed to get a majority. Votes cast for two trailing candidates were then reassigned to voters’ second choices, which swung the election to Golden.
Poliquin then filed a lawsuit alleging that the new balloting system, also called ranked choice, violated the U.S. Constitution.
He asked Judge Lance Walker either to declare him the winner or order a second election for the 2nd Congressional District. But Walker, a recent appointee by Republican President Donald Trump, did neither.
The judge said he failed to see how Maine’s candidate-ranking system undercut voters’ First Amendment rights “in any fashion.” The system, he said, 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.”
The new method of voting “actually encourages First Amendment expression, without discriminating against any voter based on viewpoint, faction or other invalid criteria,” said Walker, a judge with the U.S. District Court in Bangor.
Walker rejected Poliquin’s arguments that ranked balloting gives some voters more expression than others or proves too confusing for the average voter. Even when votes cast for trailing candidates were reassigned, Walker said, all votes “remained and were counted.”
“The point is that ‘one person, one vote’ does not stand in opposition to ranked balloting, so long as all electors are treated equally at the ballot” Walker said.
Poliquin’s lawyer had argued the candidate-ranking system required voters to “guess” which candidates would survive until the second, runoff-style round of tabulations. Poliquin also argued several thousand Maine voters who didn’t select Poliquin or Golden were effectively disenfranchised.
But Walker said it’s just as likely that such ballots were “protest votes.”
“I am not persuaded that it is unduly burdensome for voters to educate themselves about the candidates in order to determine the best way to rank their preferences,” Walker said.
The judge said the U.S. Constitution is “perfectly silent” on how states must elect federal representations, and noted other states require election by majority. Critics can question the wisdom of ranked-choice voting, Walker said, but such criticism “falls short of constitutional impropriety,” Walker said.
“The Constitution does not require an easy ballot,” Walker said.
Meanwhile, the state is about halfway through a recount in Augusta, the state capital, of the 2nd Congressional District election. Poliquin requested the recount.
After the judge’s ruling was announced Thursday, Poliquin said he remained concerned about some Maine voters expressing confusion with the voting system. He defended Maine’s old system as a “common sense, one-person, one-vote process.”
Golden and supporters of ranked voting said after the ruling that they felt vindicated by Walker’s decision. Golden said that Walker’s “decision is clear” and that he hopes Poliquin works with him to ensure a smooth transition for the congressional district.
James Monteleone, an attorney for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, said he believes Walker’s ruling “will stand up to any appeal.”
Voters in the November election were allowed to rank as many of the four candidates in the race as they wanted. Independents Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar were eliminated after the first round of voting.
Maine voters approved the new voting method in 2016. It’s used only in primaries and federal elections. The state doesn’t use it for state-level elections because of concerns that it violates the Maine Constitution.
Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage, an opponent of ranked choice voting, sent a letter to Walker before the ruling stating that he feels the ranked process is “repugnant to the governing legal principles that each person’s vote be counted in every election, as well as the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection.”