What you need to know about the looming recount in Maine’s 2nd District

Good morning from Augusta. Outgoing U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin continued to put Maine’s new ranked-choice voting system through its paces on Monday, when he asked for a recount of the November election won by Assistant Maine House Majority Leader Jared Golden.

The Republican incumbent has cast doubt on the method, used statewide for the first time ever in Maine’s 2018 primaries and congressional general elections, in an uphill challenge in federal court and in statements around the counting that are partially unsupported by evidence.

But the 3,500-vote gap between Golden, a Democrat, and Poliquin in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District will be tested in the first ranked-choice recount anyway. Here’s what it’s likely to yield.

The recount will be an arduous process that could finish close to the end of the year, but it’s unlikely to change the result and Golden is still the congressman-elect. Since Poliquin lost to Golden by a margin of more than one percentage point in the ranked-choice count, he will have to pay for the recount unless it reverses the outcome of the election.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office estimates that the recount could take four weeks, which would put a resolution in the second half of December if it gets under way soon. It hasn’t been scheduled yet. State rules govern the recount and it will be a grueling process.

All of it will be done by hand, with ballots first sorted by first-choice votes. Those would be counted and recorded. Then, the ballots on which neither Poliquin nor Golden were selected as first choices would be counted and recorded and municipal totals aggregated.

It’s also unlikely that much changes. The median swing in 27 statewide recounts between 2000 and 2015 was just 219 votes, according to data collected by FairVote, an electoral reform group.

Dunlap told WGAN on Tuesday that the 2nd District margin is “really the Grand Canyon,” though he conceded that “everything is new and we’ll find out for sure when it’s done.” Golden’s margin increased by more than 600 votes from the last count after Dunlap’s office said results from six towns didn’t upload properly into the system.

Golden’s campaign said Monday that he is in Washington, D.C., this week for orientation activities. The U.S. Constitution says each house of Congress is the judge when it comes to seating its own members. The recount isn’t going to change things unless it changes things.

Poliquin has cast ranked-choice voting in political terms that could erode what relatively little confidence that Republicans have in the system. In a Monday statement on the recount bid, a Poliquin spokesman opined that the campaign “heard from countless Maine voters who were confused and even frightened their votes did not count” due to “computer-engineered” ranked-choice voting and said the software used to calculate tallies is “not transparent.”

“This is about making sure every Mainer that goes to the polls knows that he or she is casting his or her vote legally and making sure that vote is counted accurately,” Poliquin told reporters in Portland on Tuesday.

There is no evidence that votes weren’t counted. Dunlap’s office has published the cast vote records on its website, showing every ballot that was counted. Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, a Puerto Rican elections wonk, has posted the number of different combinations of votes in the election on his website.

According to that data, the most popular combination in the 2nd District was the one used by more than 81,000 people — including Poliquin himself — who ranked the Republican first and ranked nobody else.

That high number of Republican voters who didn’t rank underlines the partisan divide on ranked-choice voting. Exit polling conducted by the Bangor Daily News and paid for by FairVote found that nearly 81 percent of Democrats wanted to expand the use of ranked-choice voting while 72 percent of Republicans wanted to stop using it.

Neither the recount nor the court case will gain the system any love from the right. In a statement, Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, cited the heightened margin for Golden as a reason why trust in the method is “shaken.”

That’s true for many conservatives. We’ll soon see for sure how good the reasons are for it. — Michael Shepherd with Jake Bleiberg

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