Judge tosses lawsuit by GOP congressman who lost election

Judge tosses lawsuit by GOP congressman who lost election
FILE - This combination of file photos show U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin in 2017, left, and state Rep. Jared Golden in 2018, right, in Maine. Federal Judge Lance Walker has dismissed a lawsuit by Poliquin aimed to nullify outcome of first ranked choice congressional election won by Golden. (AP Photos/Robert F. Bukaty, File) (Robert F. Bukaty)

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — 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.

Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin sought to have the voting system declared unconstitutional after he lost the election to Democrat Jared Golden despite having the most first-place votes.

Poliquin asked U.S. District Judge Lance Walker either to declare him the winner or order another election for the 2nd Congressional District.

But Walker, appointed by Republican President Donald Trump, said states are given great leeway in how they conduct elections. Critics can question the wisdom of ranked-choice voting, Walker said, but such criticism "falls short of constitutional impropriety."

There was no immediate word from Poliquin on whether he planned to appeal. A recount that Poliquin requested, meanwhile, will continue for a few more weeks.

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."

Poliquin, however, 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."

The ranked system lets voters rank all candidates on the ballot. If no candidate captures a majority on Election Day, then there are additional voting rounds in which last-place candidates are eliminated and those candidate's second-place votes are reallocated.

In his ruling, Walker rejected Poliquin's arguments that ranked balloting gives some voters more expression than others or proves too confusing for the average voter.

"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 also said he failed to see how Maine's ranked-choice voting 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.

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."

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Whittle reported from Portland, Maine.