Questions linger over election date for Portland Charter Commission

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The City Council has done its part in appointing the three members to the upcoming Charter Commission, but the question of how and when the remaining members will be selected is unresolved.

Some members of the public are calling for the election to be held in November, while city officials have said there isn’t enough time under state law for that to happen.

But there is some conflict between parts of the state statute, which governs how cities can change their charters. There are also voter turnout requirements to be considered.

Creation of the new commission, which could result in an upending of the city’s style of government, was approved in a July 14 referendum.

Portland City Hall (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

The city’s corporation counsel, Danielle West-Chuhta, has stated that state law requires nomination petitions for elected commission members must be available for 127 days prior to the election. Due to the timing of the July 14 election, she said, there isn’t enough time to meet that threshold for the Nov. 3 general election.  

The council could schedule a special election at any time, as long as the 127-day threshold is met, or it could wait to hold that vote during the scheduled June 2021 election.

But Suzanne Gresser, the revisor of statutes for the Maine Legislature, said in an interview that it’s not totally clear whether a 127-day threshold governs the decision and the rule is open to interpretation.

Gresser noted a section of the rules on charter commissions says the election of commissioners may be held either at the same municipal election as the referendum for the commission, or at the next scheduled regular or special municipal or state election.

“An argument could be made that the election should be held at the next scheduled election, which is November,” she said.

Gresser said municipalities may make adjustments to state law, but that usually occurs to enact more restrictions than the state requires, not to ease restrictions.

West-Chuhta told the Phoenix, however, that state law requires the city elect commission members in the same fashion as it elects city councilors.

“Thus, all of the Charter requirements (like the 127-day requirement, etc.) apply to the election of the commission members,” she said in an email.

Voter turnout matters

Revisions to the City Charter can only be made by organizing a Charter Commission, which makes recommendations. These recommendations are then placed on a ballot for approval by city voters.

State law also mandates that approval by a majority of voters is needed, and the total number of votes must equal or exceed 30 percent of the total votes cast in the municipality in the last gubernatorial election. In Portland’s case, since just over 34,000 people voted in the November 2018 gubernatorial election, about 10,200 votes would be required to legitimize a charter commission election.

As of this past June, there were nearly 60,700 registered voters in the city.

It can be assumed that turnout this November will be high since it is a presidential election year. And Portland’s historic turnout for these elections hasn’t been tremendously different than for gubernatorial elections: more than 38,500 voters turned out in November 2016, and just under 36,700 voted in November 2012.

But special elections, usually held in June, historically have had much smaller turnouts than the November elections, especially when there aren’t primary elections at the same time.

For example, in June 2017, just over 4,000 voters turned out. In a May 2016 school budget referendum, fewer than 1,500 people voted. In a May 2015 school budget validation vote, fewer than 1,000 voters turned out.

Amy Fried, who chairs the political science department at the University of Maine at Orono, said there are several different things to consider regarding the scheduling of the Charter Commission election. Putting aside the legal issue, she said, first and foremost there will be very high turnout in November for the presidential and U.S. Senate races.

“But also there’s so much attention to the presidential election and the U.S. Senate election in November it may be harder to get the (voters’) attention,” Fried said. “People are already focusing on these major issues, and for a local election it takes more effort to learn and have a meaningful choice.”

She said it’s also possible most people have already made up their minds on the presidential race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, and the race between Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, her Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, who is the Maine House Speaker, and independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn.

Fried said there is also a lot of attention being paid to the 2nd Congressional District race between first-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, who is considered vulnerable, and his Republican challenger Dale Crafts. She said in the 1st District, and Portland especially, there may not be that added competition for voters’ attention since U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, is highly favored over Republican challenger Jay Allen.

“If people have already made up their minds on the presidential race, even if there’s a lot of attention being paid to it, if people can get the information (about the Charter Commission election) then the fact they are very likely to be voting in November would be helpful in having a good turnout,” she said.

On the other hand, Fried said, people often pay less attention to local elections and even good information about them can get lost because of the attention going to the presidential and Senate races, as well as the coronavirus pandemic.

The city most recently had a Charter Commission around 10 years ago, which resulted in changes to the roles of the mayor and city manager, and the institution of ranked-choice voting for the mayoral election.