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Portland Still Counting Ballots in Mayoral Race
11/09/2011   Reported By: Josie Huang

On Election Night, Maine's largest city popularly elected a mayor for the first time in eight decades. But who that person is won't be publicly-known until later tonight, a day after the polls closed. Josie Huang has more.

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The city used a time-intensive electoral process called ranked-choice voting that's has never been tried in Maine until now. Also known as instant run-off, it's used in the U.S. by a dozen or so cities, such as San Francisco and Minneapolis.

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. That was extremely unlikely to happen in Portland, where a staggering 15 candidates vied to be mayor.

"If no candidate has a majority of first-place votes, 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," says Dorothy Scheeline, who is observing the Portland mayoral race for D.C.-based FairVote, which advocates ranked-choice voting.

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

So even though the front-runner--former state Sen. Michael Brennan--got the most first-place votes at 27 percent, and closed out Election Night with jubilant supporters at a local bar, he knew the race was not over. "I'm cautiously optimistic at this point because we go to the next phase where they'll start to count the No. 2 votes," Brennan said.

That phase began around 10 a.m. in Portland 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 Sen. Ethan Strimling showed up about a half-hour later to see the counting for himself. He was in second place, having nabbed 22 percent of the first-place votes, trailing Brennan by 850 votes.

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

By 1:30 p.m., all the ballots were scanned and it was time for the computers to process information extracted from the digital images. Caleb Kleppner, the TrueBallot executive overseeing the counting, anticipated that some ballots would need to be re-examined because of possible voting mistakes detected by the computers--like, say, ranking a candidate twice.

"We're going to look at ballots where we know there's a problem and we're going to look at as many of other ballots as we need to in order to be sure that we have every ballot counted correctly," Kleppner says. "And that could be all of them or it might be almost all of them."

That's a lot of information to sort through. Some voters, such as Eric Kenney, rank-ordered all 15 candidates. "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." Kenney says he felt most strongly, though, about five candidates he deemed pro-education, and ranked Brennan first.

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. "I know who I wanted. 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 knew who I wanted doing the research that I did initially."

In the mayoral race, similarities with rivals were often promoted by candidates as a way to land more second-place votes, with three of the candidates even holding a press event together to publicize shared goals.

But in the end, Brennan and Strimling rose to the top, with Nick Mavodones, the current mayor selected by his fellow city councilors, in third place with 15 percent of the first-place votes.

Kleppner says the computer can instantly figure out who is the winner. But for transparency's sake, he says that the winner wouldn't be revealed to the public assembled in City Hall's State of Maine room until each step of the process is explained -- starting with the elimination of the lowest first-place vote getter Jodie Lapchick, and the reallocation of her second-place votes.

"It's 14 rounds that we will present on a screen, projected," Kleppner says. "We want to show the public how many votes each candidate got on each round of the process, so we can see the process of elimination and we can see the vote coming together to get a majority winner."

The one person who will have seen the results right after the computer spits out the numbers is City Clerk Kathy Jones. But she's not going to say anything until the last round is over.


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