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Election Officials Continue To Count Ballots While Awaiting Judge's Decision On Ranked-Choice Voting

Robert F. Bukaty
Maine Public
In this Nov. 12, 2018 file photo, ballots are prepared to be tabulated for Maine's Second Congressional District's House election in Augusta.

As political observers wait for a federal judge to decide if he'll intervene in the nation's first ranked-choice voting election for a congressional race, state election officials continued gathering and counting the ballots that will determine the winner. State workers did their best to keep the looming legal dispute from distracting from the count. Evidence of the growing controversy over Maine's landmark voting law was everywhere.

Election workers entered the small, chilly room of the Elkins Building at the old Augusta Mental Health Institute promptly at 9 a.m., about the same time that an attorney for Republican House Representative Bruce Poliquin attempted to convince a U.S. District Court judge in Bangor that what they were doing was illegal.

The workers gathered the ballots from the remaining 75 towns in the 2nd Congressional District and scanned them into a high-speed tabulator.

The election workers operated under the ranked-choice voting law Mainers first ratified two years ago and reaffirmed again in June.

But they did so under the watchful eyes of attorneys and political activists who camped out in this small room not only to monitor the count, but each other.

Earlier this week, the Maine Republican Party, which opposes ranked-choice voting, circulated grainy photos of ballot boxes, images that suggested that ballots could have been tampered with.

They provided no evidence of wrongdoing and filed no formal complaints with the Secretary of State.

On Wednesday, Republican and Democratic observers at the counting room were polite, but armed with digital cameras, some with telephoto lenses typically used at sporting events to shoot from a distance.

They used their phones to video the mundane process of scanning ballots or recording them as they were transported from a secure room to the counting area.

All of it was preparation for the unfolding legal and political battle that's intensified along with the partisan divide over a new voting system that its supporters said would make elections more inclusive, more civil.

By Wednesday afternoon, it was clear U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker would not stop the count.

The end of the workday, and a small unorganized territory in Hancock County called Township 10, would do that.

Township 10 never sent their ballots to be counted, so a police officer was dispatched to retrieve them - all 10 of them.

It was small hiccup, but with other towns still left to process, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has ordered the count to resume Thursday.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.