Rep. Bruce Poliquin was the first choice of many voters in his bid for re-election in Maine’s second house district, with more than 2,000 more votes than his closest opponent.
But unfortunately for him, he was not the voters’ second choice. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” lamented Poliquin. Crazy, he says, because his Democratic opponent, Jared Golden, has been declared the winner.
Poliquin's loss is the first test of Maine's new election tabulation process called Ranked Choice Voting, under which voters can prioritize a crowded field of candidates - from favorite to least favorite.
If no candidate wins a majority, as happened with Poliquin, they eliminate the last place finisher and take his or her second-choice picks and distribute them among the remaining candidates. That process is then repeated until someone gets over 50 percent of the vote.
Some call it instant runoff, and it is gaining popularity across the country.
Adam Friedman is pushing a ranked choice voting proposal in Massachusetts. “With Ranked Choice Voting, you actually get to vote honestly, rather than strategically,” Friedman explained.
In crowded fields, Friedman went on, voters often won’t vote for the candidate they like best because they’re afraid that the candidate they like least may be elected.
When asked if Poliquin’s loss was fair, Friedman was certain. “It actually is fair,” he told Fox News, “because Ranked Choice Voting ensures that the winner has the majority of the district’s support, not merely one faction or one tribe.”
Poliquin doesn’t see it that way. “For 200 years in the state of Maine, we've had one person have one vote,” he said. “It's not complicated, it's not controversial.”
He says that offering voters a second choice may even be unconstitutional, so he challenged the results in federal court.
Earlier this month, his case was presented before U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker during a hearing in which he made the argument against the ranked-choice voting law, saying that it violates the U.S. Constitution because its unique runoff system produces a “faux majority” winner of elections and disenfranchises voters.
The legal challenge is likely the first step in Poliquin’s attempts to reverse the Second Congressional District race won by his opponent and is part of a broader effort to invalidate a voting method that some Republicans view as an existential threat.
On Thursday, Walker rejected the lawsuit, dismissing Poliquin's arguments that ranked balloting gave some voters more of a voice than others or proved 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.
Supporters of the runoff system say that Poliquin’s attorneys are using an array of sometimes contradictory claims against the law and that their failure could ultimately bolster ranked-choice voting against what has so far been a withering legal and political campaign.
The case is also being watched closely by national advocates for ranked-choice voting who hope to implement the system in other states.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.