Maine lawyers Benjamin Grant and Joshua Tardy are used to being holed up together.
For at least eight hours a day over the past week, they’ve rubbed shoulders in a cramped conference room in Augusta, overseeing the hand recount of the nearly 300,000 ballots cast in Maine’s 2nd District.
“We’re like Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner,” Tardy joked. “You gotta have each other.”
Grant, a Democrat, and Tardy, a Republican, have handled most of the state House and Senate recounts in the Pine Tree State for the past decade. GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin requested the recount of the 2nd District after losing to Democrat Jared Golden last month under the new ranked-choice voting system.
The mechanics of this recount are slightly different, but the intimacy of the process — with opposing campaigns examining paper ballots side by side — is similar to what happens across the country when the counting, for one reason or another, must begin anew.
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A congressional first
Poliquin requested the recount late last month after final results showed him coming up short in his bid for a third term. He narrowly led Golden after the first round of counting, but his failure to receive more than 50 percent of the vote triggered the state’s ranked-choice system — used for the first time for a House race.
Under the system, which was also used in the June primaries, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority, the last-place finisher is knocked out and his votes are then distributed to his supporters’ second choices. The process repeats until someone wins a majority.
After third-party candidates were eliminated and their votes reallocated to voters’ second-choice candidates, Golden won by about 3,500 votes.
So far, there’s not much to suggest the hand recount will yield a different outcome from the computer algorithm that processed the ranked-choice votes. Poliquin is separately challenging the ranked-choice voting system in court, with a federal judge expected to rule this week.
The congressman has argued that he won with a plurality, but the Golden campaign is optimistic Poliquin’s legal challenge won’t go far since the same judge already denied his attempt to seek an injunction against the tabulation of the ranked-choice votes.
A steady process
The secretary of state’s office is overseeing this recount, but the actual counting is taking place in another state office building — wherever they could find a big enough secure room.
The windows are high and small, the fluorescent lights bright, and the walls sky-blue. There are eight long tables arranged in rows of four. Every table has two representatives (one from each campaign) sitting across from a representative from the Maine secretary of state’s office.
They started last Thursday with towns whose ballots were already pre-sorted, which is perhaps why the counting has gone faster than expected. The secretary of state’s office estimated the whole process could take four weeks — throwing into question whether Golden could be sworn in on Jan. 3 with the rest of the 116th Congress (assuming he wins the recount). But they’ve been averaging about 27,000 ballots per day, and the campaigns are now expecting to finish up next week.
That’s important to Golden, who would fall behind in seniority if he were seated later than his peers. He can’t be sworn into the House until Maine certifies the election results.
While the race for the 2nd District — one of the most competitive in the country — was contentious, the recount itself has been low-drama.
The two counters from each campaign look over each ballot together, and when there’s an irregularity, they raise their hands, calling over lawyers from each campaign. That happens about a half-dozen times per hour, said Grant, the lead attorney for the Golden campaign and a former chairman of the Maine Democratic Party.
“We don’t have hanging chads in Maine. We have incomplete ovals and extraneous marks,” added Tardy, a former state House minority leader who’s leading Poliquin’s recount efforts.
If intention can’t be determined, those ballots are set aside and only resolved if they would make a difference in the results.
The counting goes on from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with coffee flowing and a break for ordered-in lunch from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn has reminded the counters not to talk politics in the room. They’re encouraged to limit chatter to the Patriots or their kids.
“Most people just want it to go smoothly. [There’s] not a lot of incentives for people to get into arguments,” Grant said. “The margin in the race makes it low pressure,” he added, noting that there might have been more tension if Poliquin had a narrower deficit to make up.
Waiting in the wings
The secretary of state’s office won’t release any results until the process is complete. But each campaign is keeping its own tally. Golden’s campaign hasn’t seen anything that would change the results. Speaking for the Poliquin campaign, Tardy said the recount has resulted in “some changes,” but nothing significant. He cautioned, though, that, as of Wednesday afternoon, some of the state’s largest municipalities were still outstanding.
Counters finished Lewiston on Tuesday and Auburn and Bangor on Wednesday for a total of 137,000 ballots counted so far. Maine state police were heading out Wednesday to collect ballots from more towns; they must be transported to Augusta via police cruiser. If the current counting pace continues, Tardy expects counters will likely have gone through more than 200,000 ballots by the end of this week.
Poliquin could pull the plug on the recount at any time. If he loses, he has to pay for the state’s costs. And at a certain point, if there aren’t enough ballots left to be counted that could change the outcome, he could decide it’s no longer worth it. But as of Wednesday afternoon, Tardy said the campaign is taking “real-time assessments” and is still proceeding with the recount.
Golden is proceeding as if he’s the new member. He attended freshman orientation, has selected a D.C. office in the Longworth Building, and is hiring staff. He’s found a place to live near the Capitol, according to the Lewiston Sun Journal, his hometown newspaper.
The local media has been covering the mechanics of the recount and the legal challenge, all while largely treating Golden as the 2nd District’s next representative. A local TV news profile by “Bill Green’s Maine” featured Golden, his wife and their cat, without a single mention of the recount or the legal challenge. Green ended the segment by wishing “Congressman Golden” luck as he “begins his career in Washington.”