Employees at the Maine Secretary of State’s Office put voting machine thumb drives into computers during ranked-choice voting tabulation on Friday.

AUGUSTA — Maine election officials began the laborious process Friday of scanning and downloading hundreds of thousands of voter ballots, preparing for the nation’s first use of ranked-choice voting to determine a statewide election.

At stake is victory in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for governor – a seven-person race currently led by Attorney General Janet Mills and veteran/attorney Adam Cote – and potentially the party nomination for the 2nd Congressional District.

A worker at the Maine Secretary of State’s Office takes papers from a ballot box during ranked-choice voting tabulation on Friday.

The results are expected to be revealed early next week after votes are run through the ranked-choice voting tabulation. But before those calculations can take place, every ballot from across the state must be entered into the secure computer system set up in a conference room that has become Maine’s ranked-choice tabulations headquarters.

As of 5 p.m. Friday, staff at the Maine Secretary of State’s Office had scanned or downloaded ballots from roughly 270 towns, cities and polling locations out of the 308 batches delivered to Augusta on Thursday. Most of the remaining 200 or so batches of ballots were expected to arrive via private courier service by Friday night, with a few stragglers anticipated on Monday.

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Staff from the Secretary of State’s Office then used a high-speed optical scanner – capable of processing 300 ballots per minute – to read ballots from towns that still tally up voting results by hand. Another team worked with the electronic memory devices to download records submitted by towns that scanned ballots at the polls on Tuesday.

It’s a time-consuming process that election officials expect to bleed into Monday, at least. The ranked-choice tabulation, meanwhile, is not expected to happen until Tuesday, although that timeframe could change.

“The deadline for towns to get their returns to us is today,” Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Friday morning. “We always have to chase a few towns, but we have tried to impress upon them the importance of getting this material into us as quickly as we can to make these determinations.”

THE CONTENDERS

There is no uncertainty about the Republican nominee to succeed Gov. Paul LePage. Shawn Moody, a Gorham businessman who ran for governor in 2010 as an independent, handily captured the Republican nomination and avoided a ranked-choice retabulation by winning 56 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results based on reports from 90 percent of the state’s voting precincts.

The Democratic candidates for governor, meanwhile, will be the guinea pigs in Maine’s new ranked-choice system.

Under the ranked-choice system, voters select candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first count, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Voters who preferred the eliminated candidate would then have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidates, and the ballots would be retabulated. The process continues until one candidate has a majority and is declared the winner.

Voters endorsed switching to the ranked-choice process in November 2016 and then reaffirmed that vote on Tuesday. And because Maine is the first state in the nation to use ranked-choice voting in a statewide election, the tabulation process and results are expected to draw national attention.

Mills was leading Cote by roughly 5,500 votes, according to the unofficial results compiled by the Portland Press Herald and The Associated Press. But with just 33 percent of the total, Mills was well below the 50 percent threshold needed to win the primary outright. Among the other six candidates, Cote had 28 percent, Betsy Sweet 16 percent, Mark Eves 14 percent, Mark Dion 4 percent, Diane Russell 2 percent and Donna Dion 1 percent.

That order could change, however, when a computer redistributes the votes that went to the three candidates who were mathematically eliminated from the race: Russell, Mark Dion and Donna Dion. The ballots that went to those candidates in the first round will be redistributed to the surviving candidates selected by voters as their second-, third- or fourth-place choice.

A high-speed scanner reads ranked-choice ballots on Friday in Augusta.

Mills and Cote – a retired major in the Maine Army National Guard – were long considered the front-runners in the race. But while the tone between Mills and Cote turned increasingly negative in the last weeks of the campaign, Sweet and Eves began campaigning together and urging their supporters to rank the other second in the ballot box. As a result, there is considerable uncertainty about whether Mills or Cote will benefit more from the Sweet-Eves contingent – or if Sweet could potentially catapult ahead of Cote with the help of Eves’ supporters.

The race for the Democratic nomination for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District also may go to a ranked-choice tabulation.

With 88 percent of precincts reporting results as of Friday, Jared Golden had 49 percent of the vote – not quite enough to be declared the winner. Lucas St. Clair has 41 percent and Craig Olson has 10 percent. If the state’s official count of first-choice votes doesn’t push Golden above 50 percent, then Olson’s votes will be redistributed to determine the winner.

THE PROCESS

The ranked-choice calculation likely will take only seconds to complete thanks to the algorithm and computer software purchased by the state. However, getting to that point takes much longer.

On Friday, teams of workers holed up in a conference room on the state government campus that formerly housed the Augusta Mental Health Institute methodically went through the process of entering ballots into the computer system. Representatives from some of the campaigns – as well as the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, journalists and curious members of the public – were on hand to watch the process.

Paper ballots from the hundreds of towns that still hand-count election results arrived via courier in blue metal boxes. For security purposes, each box featured a padlock as well as a metal wire seal that was affixed by the town clerk and was individually marked to correspond with that box. Electronic voting records loaded onto “thumb drives” arrived in large, sealed envelopes displaying the name of the town.

Secretary of State staff worked town-by-town in each county, beginning with Androscoggin County because all results had been transported to Augusta except for one town.

After opening the padlock and clipping the metal seal, workers then removed the list of contents supplied by the local clerk and the stacks of ballots often folded and wrapped in rubber bands. Those ballots were then loaded into the high-speed scanner – rented by the state for this purpose – that zipped through the stack of papers in seconds. Elsewhere in the room, other staffers patiently waited as the large digital files contained on the thumb drives were loaded into the computers.

Afterward, the ballots and drives were redeposited in a secured storage room.

“This is a first time for us as well,” Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn said Friday morning before the work began. “We have done a lot of recounts, so this isn’t dissimilar to that. But we just have to go through everything methodically. We are logging everything as we upload it.”

The upload of information is expected to continue Monday (staff will not work over the weekend) and could push into Tuesday, depending on the pace and how promptly towns turn in their ballots, Dunlap said.

Once all of the ballots are in the system, Dunlap’s office will run the “first vote” numbers to officially determine which races would require a ranked-choice tabulation. Those results will then be announced to the public prior to running the ballots through the ranked-choice software.

Dunlap said Maine’s utilization of ranked-choice voting will force additional changes to the recount process and could prompt another look at how alternative political parties qualify for party status in the state. But while his office is actively working on new rules for the recount process, most of the other discussions will have to wait until after next week.

“We’re trying to run through a burning barn in a gasoline suit right now,” Dunlap said. “We’re not really thinking about stopping to milk the cows.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

 

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