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Portland Mayoral Contest a First for Ranked Choice Voting in Maine
11/10/2011   Reported By: Josie Huang

Maine's largest city have elected a mayor by popular vote for the first time in 88 years. Portland election officials on Wednesday announced that Michael Brennan, the former Democratic state senator, had emerged from a field of 15 candidates to lead the city. What's drawn as much attention is the atypical way the election was run.

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Portland's mayoral candidates and their supporter await the vote outcome last night.

Mayor-elect Michael Brennan made an impromptu speech in City Hall, surrounded by some of the candidates who ran against him.

"I hope that four years from now," Brennan said, "We'll look back and say we have better jobs in Portland, we have a more robust economy, we have a better school system and that we continue to maintain a quality of life that no other place in the country can say is as good as we have in the city of Portland."

It was a full day after polls closed when preliminary results were announced around 8 p.m. That's because the city used a time-intensive electoral process called ranked-choice voting that has been adopted in a dozen or so places around the country but never tried before in Maine.

Also known as instant run-off, ranked choice voting is supposed to produce a winner that most voters can get behind, even if the candidate wasn't their top choice. It works like this: voters rank their favorite candidates, and the winner is whoever gets at least 50 percent of first-place votes.

"If no candidate has a majority of first-place votes," said Dorothy Scheeline of D.C.-based FairVote, which advocates ranked-choice voting, "then the candidate with the least amount of votes is dropped from the race and the voters that voted for that candidate have their second choices tabulated."

"The second-place vote counts as a first-place vote once your first-place is dropped from the race," Scheeline said. "And you just keep doing that process until somebody has 50 percent plus 1 of the votes."

That phase of counting began around 10 a.m. in a large meeting room in City Hall, where TrueBallot, the company hired by the city for $22,000 to tabulate the results, was scanning about 19,600 ballots for computer analysis.

Former state senator Ethan Strimling showed up about a half-hour later to see the counting for himself. He was in second-place coming out of Election Night, having nabbed 22 percent of the first-place votes, compared to Brennan's 27 percent.

"In instant-runoff voting, that sized-margin is easily overcome," Strimling said. "And sometimes it gets wider, and oftentimes it's overcome. So I think it will be a tight race all the way down to the end between Mike and me."

By 1:30 in the afternoon, all the ballots were scanned but it would take hours longer for the computers to process information extracted from the digital images and check for irregularities.

Voter Eric Kenney caught himself before casting a problematic ballot. While he made Brennan was his top choice because of their shared positions on education, he wanted to rank-order all of the candidates. But that got a little unwieldy.

"That's why I messed up my ballot and I had to take it back and get another one, because I filled in one column twice," he said.

Then there was Sarah Burke, who was motivated to pick just two candidates she thought were particularly business-minded: Strimling and Jed Rathband, a political consultant who would come in fifth.

"I know who I wanted," she said. "I don't find it necessary to vote for 10 people and rank them as I feel. I didn't go that far in my research and I know who I wanted doing the research that I did initially."

In ranked-choice races, similarities between rivals are often promoted by candidates as a way to land more second-place votes, and four of the Portland candidates even held a press event together to publicize shared goals.

But by 8 p.m. Wednesday night, after the second-place votes were tallied, no one could catch up to Brennan. In the City Hall meeting room, TrueBallot executive Caleb Kleppner projected horizontal bar graphs on to a screen to show how each time a lower-ranked candidate got eliminated from the race, Brennan kept getting enough second-place votes to maintain his lead.

Finally, it came time to eliminate third place-finisher Nick Mavodones, the current mayor, elected by fellow city councilors, leaving just Brennan and Strimling. "And with this next click, one of these two candidates will reach 50 percent," Kleppner said.

The votes of Mavodones supporters helped sweep Brennan 1,800 votes ahead of Strimling and into the mayor's office. "My heart is still racing and I hope never to see a graph presentation like that again," Brennan joked.

The City Clerk's office will continue to review the election results into today before certifying them. Brennan will be inaugurated in December.

Photo by Josie Huang.


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