PORTLAND, Maine (CN) — The U.S. Senate race in Maine could well decide whether Democrats take back control of the chamber this year — but a quirk of state law is likely to mean that the results won’t be determined until weeks after Election Day.
Republican Senator Susan Collins is one of the country’s most vulnerable incumbents in a Senate landscape that RealClear Politics rates a virtual tie with the balance of power hinging on a handful of toss-up races.
But in the Maine contest that features two independents, no poll this year has given either major-party candidate 50% of the vote. If that holds true on Nov. 3, the election will be determined under a complex system of “ranked-choice voting” that takes voters’ second and third choices into account.
That could take weeks.
Collins, 67, is a four-term Republican in a Democratic-leaning state who has carefully built a reputation as an independent who is often willing to disagree with her party. In 2013, she sided with President Barack Obama more than three-quarters of the time.
But after a string of easy re-elections, she is facing a tough challenge from Democratic Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon. Gideon has led almost every poll this year, “but almost always within the margin of error,” noted James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Farmington. “I’d rate it a toss-up,” he said.
Traditionally, the winner of a Senate election is the candidate who gets the most votes, even if the candidate doesn’t get a majority of the ballots cast. But in 2016, Maine adopted a controversial system called ranked-choice voting that requires candidates to get an absolute majority but allows voters to pick a second, third and fourth choice.
If no one gets 50% of the vote, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that person’s votes are redistributed based on the voters’ second choices. If there’s still no winner, the next-lowest scoring candidate is eliminated and the votes are redistributed, and so on until someone gets to 50%.
In 2018, this system reversed the result in the election in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin won the most votes on Election Day, but after two minor candidates were eliminated and their votes redistributed, Democrat Jared Golden was declared the winner.
The redistribution process took nine days, and since Maine has two congressional districts, it only involved half the state. A redistribution of a statewide Senate race could take even longer, especially if control of the Senate is at stake and both parties rush in teams of lawyers to oversee the process.
Melcher predicted that this is exactly what will happen.
One of the independent candidates this year is Lisa Savage, a retired schoolteacher and union negotiator who supports a progressive agenda, including the Green New Deal, free public college, Medicare for All and a universal basic income.
Savage’s campaign is explicitly based on ranked-choice voting. She is urging Mainers to vote for her to express support for progressive ideals and to pick the more moderate Gideon as their second choice, even explicitly using the campaign slogan “Sara Second.”
The other independent is Max Linn, a retired financial planner who strongly supports President Donald Trump, something Collins has declined to do.
But while Linn wants a five-year moratorium on immigration and is urging Mainers to buy guns for self-defense, he also calls himself an environmentalist who opposes a controversial power project and has endorsed student-loan forgiveness.