Attorneys for U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and U.S. Rep.-elect Jared Golden argued in federal court Wednesday about the constitutionality of Maine’s ranked-choice voting law, the election process that propelled Golden to a victory over the two-term incumbent Poliquin in November.

Poliquin’s lawyers are asking U.S. District Judge Lance Walker to rule that the law, passed by voters in November 2016 and affirmed with a citizens’ veto vote in June, violates the U.S. Constitution. They are arguing that Poliquin should either be declared the winner based on the fact he won the plurality of votes in the first round of counting or that there should be a special election, or runoff, between Golden, a Democrat, and Poliquin, a Republican.




The hearing ended early Wednesday afternoon with Walker saying he intended to issue a decision by next week.

James Gimpel, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland who studies voter behavior, testified Wednesday morning as an expert witness on behalf of Poliquin and his co-plaintiffs. Gimpel broadly criticized ranked-choice voting and suggested that some 8,000 voters were disenfranchised because they had no way of guessing who the final two candidates would be when they cast their ballots.

“This leaves them clueless,” Gimpel said. Gimpel admitted he had not interviewed a single Maine voter, but said he had analyzed the ballots from the election in the 2nd District.

Attorneys for Golden countered that Poliquin had failed to make a case that the state’s voting law violates the Constitution or that it harms or helps any individual candidate or group of voters.

Legal scholars have said it’s unlikely that the court would strike down the election process because the U.S. Constitution does not explictly say how states should hold their elections.

And Walker had already decided against interrupting the ranked-choice retabulation process while it was happening last month, suggesting to many observers he was not immediately convinced there was a constitutionality problem.

Maine’s ranked-choice ballots allowed voters to designate second and third choices, which are counted if no one gets more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round. Ballots cast for candidates that come in last place get redistributed based on second or third choices until someone exceeds 50 percent.

While Poliquin led the vote count after the first round, he was short of 50 percent. That allowed Golden to pull ahead after two independent candidates were eliminated and votes cast for them were redistributed.

Golden’s victory was the first time anyone has been elected to the U.S. Congress using ranked-choice voting.

Poliquin and three other voters from the state’s 2nd Congressional District are suing Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap over his implementation of the law, claiming the use of ranked-choice voting violates several sections of the Constitution.

Last month Walker ruled against stopping Dunlap from proceeding with the ranked-choice vote count, which resulted in Golden winning the seat by 3,509 votes.

Poliquin’s lawsuit claims the use of ranked-choice voting violates the U.S. Constitution because the document “sets a plurality vote as the qualification for election” to Congress. However, the U.S. Constitution does not mention plurality or ranked-choice voting, and several constitutional scholars said the lawsuit was not likely to prevail. Poliquin has also asked for a recount of the election, which is set to begin on Thursday.

Poliquin’s attorneys have also indicated that if Walker rules against them they will appeal the lawsuit to the next level and onward to the U.S. Supreme Court. Whether the highest court would take up the case is uncertain given that Supreme Court justices accept only about 80 of the 1,000 or so appeals made to them each year.

Republicans have long criticized the ranked-choice law approved by voters as unconstitutional and successfully blocked the process from being used in general elections for statewide offices such as governor and the Legislature. The Maine Constitution says those races are to be decided by a “plurality” of votes, but it doesn’t specify how federal elections or party primaries should be conducted.

The Maine Republican Party also sued Dunlap’s office in federal court in May trying to overturn the law’s application to primary elections in June but that suit was rejected by a federal judge in Portland this year. That suit was appealed to the federal appeals court in Boston, although it has since been dropped.

Poliquin’s complaint, if rejected by Walker, also could be appealed to the Boston court. Poliquin’s attorney said Wednesday no decision has been made about whether he would continue to challenge the law if he loses in the Bangor court.