Poliquin right to challenge ranked-choice voting

In a surprise to exactly no one, Bruce Poliquin filed a lawsuit in federal court on Tuesday, challenging Maine’s ranked-choice voting system.

Contrary to the already developing narrative being used by some, this suit is not being filed because Poliquin is a “sore loser” — indeed, it is being filed as he stands the plurality winner of the 2nd Congressional District race, before the ranked-choice tally.

The reality is, Poliquin has a duty to his campaign, the plurality of his constituents that voted for him, and to the country to file this suit, and file it exactly when he did.

Filing it before the election were to take place would have been a mistake, and likely would have resulted in the suit being dismissed as frivolous, because Poliquin wouldn’t have really even had legal standing.

There is material impact now. Not because ranked-choice voting is likely to overturn his rather clear and decisive plurality win on Election Day. He is now in a completed race, and the system is being used to determine the winner, even if it ended up being him. So this is exactly the time this kind of lawsuit is being filed.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin speaks at a news conference Tuesday, after he filed a federal lawsuit against Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap in an attempt to stop a tabulation of ranked-choice ballots in his race. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Now, if you are a cynic, and you just think he’s just doing this to try to win, ask yourself a few serious questions.

Imagine you, not Poliquin, were running for Congress. Imagine a change was made to the election system. A change that you opposed. More importantly, a change that you honestly and sincerely believed was unconstitutional, well before your own election was at stake.

Let’s say that you then you ran your campaign, and endured the most expensive campaign in state history, with an avalanche of outside money pouring into your district, intent on your utter destruction. Lies. Unfair mischaracterizations. The works.

Let’s say you took all of that, and somehow you survived, earning 2,000 more votes than you closest competitor on Election Day.

And then let’s say that the electoral system that you opposed and that you view as unconstitutional, suddenly threatened to hand the election to a person who was the first choice of fewer people in your district than you were.

You don’t think you’d fight that? Bull. You know you would.

That hypothetical not withstanding, the question now is whether or not Poliquin’s suit will succeed. I don’t know if it will, but I do know that I was right about ranked-choice voting’s unconstitutionality before, and I think Poliquin is right about it now.

At issue in the suit are three concerns. Joined by three voters as plaintiffs, Poliquin’s contention is that ranked-choice voting violates provisions in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, as well as the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act.

We can debate the various parts of the suit, I suppose, but where I think his argument is strongest is in the concerns over the First and Fourteenth Amendment.

The Poliquin suit alleges that the right of voters to cast an “effective vote” is denied under ranked-choice, because in an instant runoff system, voters have no way of knowing what candidates will be remaining in individual rounds, and are thus denied the capability of knowing who they are evaluating between and choosing.

This has long been one of my biggest problems with ranked-choice voting. Contrary to the clean and fantastical notion that many of us, myself included, can somehow “rank” candidates in an election by order of preference, the reality is that there are dozens of scenarios whereby I would select different people for an office, depending on who their opponent was.

I, as a voter, want to know who I am choosing between, and the denial of that right to know, allowing me to make an informed choice, is unconstitutional.

This is why, by the way, my chosen method of electoral reform — which I am by and large fine with — is a true multi-round system whereby candidates are eliminated and a second election is held.

It isn’t perfect, but such a system would allow me to know who I am choosing between, and make an informed, effective choice.

By using an instant-runoff, you are effectively denying this, which is at the core of Poliquin’s argument, particularly as it relates to the Voting Rights Act, which requires states to assist voters in making knowledgeable votes.

I buy the argument. What remains to be seen is whether or not the courts will. But even if he ultimately loses that court fight, Poliquin was right to wage it.


Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.