Portland voters could add ranked-choice elections

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Portland voters will decide March 3 if they want to extend ranked-choice voting beyond just the mayoral election to City Council and School Board races.

The city has used RCV for mayoral elections since 2011 when Michael Brennan became the first popularly elected mayor in decades. Brennan served one term and was defeated by Ethan Strimling in 2015. Mayor Kate Snyder defeated Strimling last fall in a four-way ranked-choice race.

The City Charter amendment to extend ranked-choice voting is the only local measure on the March 3 ballot. Maine will also have party primaries for presidential candidates, and a statewide ballot measure that would overturn a new state law that eliminated religious and philosophical exemptions from vaccination requirements for school enrollment.

Portland voters on March 3 will decide if they want to use ranked-choice voting to elect City Council and School Board members. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

In an RCV system, voters rank candidates by preference. A candidate must secure a majority of the vote to be declared the winner. If after the first round of ballots has been counted and no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and voters who picked that candidate as No. 1 have their next-choice votes counted. A new tally is conducted and the process is repeated until a candidate has won the outright majority.

Last November, the District 3 City Council seat was won by Tae Chong, who received 43 percent of the votes – a plurality, but not the majority. In the mayoral race, Snyder was declared the winner with 62 percent of the vote after two instant run-offs.

RCV was extended to statewide primaries and federal contests by the Legislature last year.

The city measure is being spearheaded by a group called Fair Elections Portland, which is also supporting an initiative to have candidates for mayor, City Council, and School Board be publicly funded to stem what the group’s website calls “the tide of big money’s influence” and enable candidates to run more competitive races.

A representative of Fair Elections Portland did not respond to a request for comment on the measure Monday, but the group’s website states RCV gives voters the chance to support the candidate they want, and not “the lesser of two evils.”

“You have the freedom to vote for the candidate you like the best without worrying that you will help to elect the candidate you like the least,” the group says.

The Maine Republican Party has challenged the ranked-choice system and is circulating a petition to put a question on the November ballot that would repeal the state law that extends RCV to presidential elections. The GOP plans to collect signatures at polling places on March 3.

Maine’s first-in-the-nation ranked-choice system was able to withstand a federal legal challenge in 2018 after Democrat Jared Golden defeated incumbent Rep. Bruce Poliquin in the 2nd Congressional District.

“One person, one vote is a bedrock American principle,” said Dr. Demi Kouzounas, chairwoman of the Maine Republican Party. “Ranked-choice voting is a direct violation of that principle and threatens the rights of all Mainers and delegitimizes our election process.”