AUGUSTA — Election officials inched closer Monday to a historic ranked-choice run-off in Maine’s 2nd District even as the political parties traded jabs over “voter integrity” and “scare tactics.”

With the final outcome of the 2nd District race still unclear, the Maine Republican Party called on Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to reassign an employee involved in ranked-choice voting tabulation because of his social media activity. Democratic Party leaders and Dunlap, meanwhile, responded by accusing Maine Republicans of attempting to undermine public confidence in the voting system.

“I’m pretty sure that the Maine Republican Party has our phone number, and if they have questions they can call us and ask us,” Dunlap said. “Instead they are communicating through the media. I think it’s intended to be a distraction, it’s intended to cast doubt on this process. And I think it’s irresponsible and a disservice to the people of Maine.”

Incumbent Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin is leading Democratic challenger Jared Golden by roughly 2,000 votes, according to unofficial election results. The two-term Republican congressman and Golden – a Marine Corps veteran and state lawmaker – each have roughly 46 percent of the vote. But because neither received more than 50 percent, votes cast for independents Tiffany Bond and William Hoar – who received 8 percent combined – will be reallocated based on who those voters ranked second on their ballots.

On Monday, staff with Dunlap’s office continued scanning paper ballots from across the largest and most rural congressional district east of the Mississippi River.

Digital files supplied by towns that scan ballots at the polling place already had been loaded into the system by Monday morning. But Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn estimated that ballots from 150 towns that hand-count ballots still had to be prepped and scanned into the computer system before all voting results could be run through the ranked-choice algorithm.

Flynn suggested that tabulation could happen Wednesday.

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, right, explains how her office processed ballots during a tabulation of votes for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District race between Jared Golden and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin on Monday on Monday in Augusta.

“It’s just a matter of getting all of those hand-count towns scanned and I would say we definitely can do it in the next two days,” Flynn said at the end of the workday Monday.

Whoever crests that 50 percent threshold first will win the nation’s first congressional race decided by ranked-choice voting. Attorneys from both candidates are closely monitoring the process. But with many observers predicting a Golden victory after the second-choice votes have been reallocated, Republicans continued to raise concerns about the process Monday as they laid the groundwork for an anticipated legal challenge.

On Monday morning, Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage called out a staffer in Dunlap’s office “who is directly handling ballots in the secure area (and) has a history of liking tweets supporting Jared Golden and attacking Bruce Poliquin.” Savage called on Dunlap to reassign the staffer, Andrew Roth-Wells, to tasks not involved in the ranked-choice tabulations.

“Highly partisan staff should not be handling ballots in this process. It’s simple,” Savage said in a statement Monday morning. “Someone who cheers for Jared Golden to be Maine’s next congressman can not be put forward as an impartial participant.”

While Savage said it was “a simple request with the integrity of the process in mind,” the Maine Democratic Party accused its counterpart of participating in “a national effort by Republicans to delegitimize the voting count in races they fear they could lose.”

“Maine Republicans lost decisively on Election Night, and now they’re trying to employ the same scare tactics that they used before the primaries in June,” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said in a statement. “Their attempts to sabotage ranked-choice voting and sow fear and doubt didn’t work then, and they aren’t going to work now.”

This is the second time in three days that either Republican officials or Poliquin’s campaign have raised questions about the ranked-choice voting tabulation. Over the weekend, a Poliquin spokesman expressed concerns about unlocked ballot boxes and whether a clerk in Bangor had been handling ballots alone.

Roth-Wells is an election coordinator at the Secretary of State’s office. He previously worked as a special assistant in the office of Attorney General Janet Mills – a Democrat who will become Maine’s next governor in January – as well as for Democrats in the Legislature.

He declined to comment on the Republicans’ push to have him reassigned Monday. But Dunlap responded that his office employs professionals of all political backgrounds and there were no plans to reassign Roth-Wells, whom he called “a highly skilled individual who knows what he is doing very well.”

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Roth-Wells is among more than a dozen staffers who are removing paper ballots from locked boxes, organizing and feeding them into a scanner that records an optical image of the ballot. All of the work is conducted in a state conference room that is accessible to the public, although the ballots are kept in a locked, secure room when they are not being processed.

“It’s all open. The attorneys are watching this, everyone is watching this,” Dunlap said. “We know that they are watching it quite carefully, which gets back to the question of should people have faith in this? I want people … to have trust and confidence in what we are doing. But that’s why it is open to the public because if they have those doubts, they are free to come see for themselves.”

Poliquin’s campaign, as well as the Maine Republican Party, also had raised concerns about the lack of padlocks on some ballot boxes.

“One of the Secretary of State’s own tweets shows two boxes holding ballots for the RCV tabulation that are not secured with a padlock,” the party wrote in a Facebook post Sunday that featured several pictures of ballot boxes. “Yet Sec. of State Dunlap has tweeted that all boxes are secured with padlocks. This is clearly not true, as evidence we are providing here and the Secretary of State’s own picture prove. Congressman Poliquin’s concern is very much warranted.”

Secretary of State’s Office employee Tom Bull moves ballot boxes on Monday during a tabulation of votes for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District race between Jared Golden and Rep. Bruce Poliquin in Augusta.

Dunlap said Monday that all boxes containing ballots transported to Augusta have been secured with a wire-metal seal that once locked can be removed only by being cut off. Clerks affix those seals to the ballot box before transportation to Augusta, meaning someone would have to snip the seal in order to tamper with them. Most boxes also had padlocks.

“If we had a ballot box that showed up here that was neither locked nor sealed, I would freak out,” Dunlap said. “We would want to sequester that and find out what is going on … and we would want to take that pretty seriously.”

Dunlap also is a Democrat, but his party affiliation has not been called into question in any of the numerous elections he has overseen since taking office in January 2013. Dunlap served on President Trump’s voter fraud commission and ended up successfully suing the commission for the release of documents after saying its members were being kept in the dark.

Maine voters approved ranked-choice voting in 2016. The law was later repealed by the state Legislature, but that decision was overturned by a citizens’ veto in 2017, restoring ranked-choice voting in certain elections. Only the statewide races for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate in Maine – as well as party primaries in June for gubernatorial and legislative contests – are tabulated using the ranked-choice system.

The process allows voters to list candidates in order of preference in races with three or more candidates. If no candidate receives a majority of votes, the ranked-choice process kicks in. A computer algorithm works from the bottom of the standings toward the top, reallocating votes for the eliminated candidates to those still in the running based on the rankings. The process continues until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the total votes.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: thisdog

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