‘How did this happen?’

Portland Charter Commission election raises questions about ranked-choice voting

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Although results suggested a resounding victory for progressive candidates in last week’s Portland Charter Commission election, one expert believes the winners would have been different if the city had used a more appropriate type of ranked-choice tabulation.

Chris Hughes is the policy director of Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, which provided the software used by the city to count the votes. He said the ranked-choice voting method the city used – known as multi-pass instant runoff – was not ideal in an election with so many candidates running for several seats.

Marpheen Chann

While the actual voting and calculating didn’t create any problems, he said, the city was “stuck” with a method of RCV that he wouldn’t have recommended – and that upended the initial vote count.

“My sense is … everything went smoothly,” Hughes said, “but the question people are asking us is ‘how did this happen?’”

While the five district members of the commission were all elected with comfortable majorities, the at-large races required ranked-choice runoffs. With 10 candidates for four seats, it required several different runoffs.

Pat Washburn

Take the case of candidate Steven DiMillo. When all the votes were initially counted on June 8, he had the second-highest tally: more than 1,800 votes or about 21 percent of the total. But in subsequent ranked-choice counts, DiMillo was overtaken by both Catherine Buxton, who initially had 970 votes or just over 11 percent, and Patricia Washburn, who jumped from 367 votes – or just over 4 percent – to win a seat.

“I’m curious to see how the Charter Commission takes this in and what they do with it,” Hughes said of the results and the methodology. “People have asked us what happened here. There will have to be some conversation, and I’m curious to see what happens.”

Catherine Buxton

Hughes said he believes there are better ways to elect multiple people, but the multi-pass method was what was required by the City Charter. He said the charter says RCV will be used to determine “whoever has the majority,” but the actual process is somewhat confusing. 

In all RCV models, the candidates are ranked by voters in order of preference.

In multi-pass, if anyone has more than 50 percent on the first count, they win a seat. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and the voter’s next preference gets support. That process continues until someone breaks the 50 percent threshold. Once a

Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef

candidate gets the majority, they win, and their name is taken out of the pool. Then the process begins again.

An alternative, which Hughes said is best for races where several candidates are running for several seats, requires only reach a specific threshold of support to win. In a memo to the city, Hughes said if there are four seats up for election, then the threshold would be 20 percent.

But the City Charter still requires winners to have 50 percent of the vote. 

“My sense is the four people who won were running as a slate,” Hughes said, referring to what was known as the Rose

Ryan Lizanecz

Slate, a group of first-time, female, multiracial candidates. “The person who came in with the fourth-fewest votes (Patricia Washburn) was just ranked after the other candidates, so they got that big boost from the way this form handles later rankings.”

He said multi-pass runoffs favor candidates who run as a slate, because they act like a majority. So while DiMillo clearly performed well on many first-place ballots, Hughes said, he didn’t perform well enough in later rankings to secure more than 50 percent.

Hughes said he would have recommended a system of RCV used in Cambridge, Massachusetts, known as single

Robert O’Brien

transferable vote, which tries to achieve proportional representation.

Voters still rank candidates by preference, but instead of a candidate being eliminated in runoffs, votes are transferred to the voter’s next preference. Hughes said this is the best method to use when there are several seats available.

Had the city used the single transferable form of RCV, Hughes said, it’s very likely – almost guaranteed – the winners would have been different.

“I would expect different results,” he said. “People would have campaigned differently. It would have been a

Marcques Houston

different election.”

DiMillo, who ran on a platform of maintaining the status quo of city governmental structure, did not respond to an interview request.  

Washburn, who received the fourth-fewest votes among the at-large candidates who remained in the race on June 8, said she was very surprised that she had won a seat. She said she had been planning to have an election-night party, but after seeing the early results decided to call it off and go home.

Around midnight, Buxton called her to tell her she won.

Shay Stewart-Bouley

“I was a supporter of ranked-choice voting before, and I’m certainly a supporter now,” Washburn said. “I think it’s a fair process. It reflects that I had a depth of support that other certain candidates complaining in the media did not have.”

Benjamin Grant was another at-large candidate who was overtaken by Washburn and Buxton in the runoffs. When the polls closed he had 1,082 votes, good for more than 12 percent and the fourth and final at-large seat.

But Grant fell out of the top four after the RCV runoffs. Like DiMillo, he did not respond to an interview request.

Zack Barowitz

‘Stay mad’

Despite the questions over how and why certain candidates won, the Charter Commission has been filled, with members largely in favor of a progressive agenda.

That agenda, however, came under fire last week, when at-large Commissioner-elect Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef reaffirmed her desire to abolish the city manager’s position in a very public manner, just hours after her victory.

“Jon Jennings! You about to lose your job. We are going to make you the last white supremacist city manager,” Sheikh-Yousef tweeted about the current city manager, who has held the job since 2015 and previously announced he will

Peter Eglinton

step down in July 2022.

Her tweet tagged her three Rose Slate colleagues: District 1 Commissioner-elect Shamika “Shay” Stewart-Bouley, and at-large winners Washburn and Buxton.

Sheikh-Yousef later tweeted “Jon Jennings is a white supremacist!” and “Abolish the city manager position!”

And after she was criticized for her comments, and some critics suggested she should resign from the commission, Sheikh-Yousef tweeted on June 10 that she had no intention of doing so.

Michael Kebede

“White people are more angrier about the word ‘white supremacist’ than racism and white supremacy,” she said. “Stay mad. I’m not going to apologize. I’m not going to resign.”

Jennings was in some ways a catalyst for the new Charter Commission.

While the referendum to form the panel was largely a series of accidents, he came under fire in June 2020 during the civil rights protests that followed the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd. During the Portland protests, protesters began demanding Jennings’ resignation, claiming his policies had negatively impacted the homeless population and

Dory Waxman

people of color.

“I am appalled by the hate-filled tweet from a newly elected member to the Charter Commission,” Jennings said last week in a statement to the Portland Press Herald. “This person does not know me or what is in my heart. To call me a white supremacist because of the job I hold is a disgrace and an attempt to assassinate my character.”

A city spokesperson said she did not have access to this written statement, and could not provide the same written statement to the Phoenix. 

One of the groups calling for Jennings’s resignation last summer Black POWER, formerly known as Black Lives Matter Portland. Sheikh-Yousef was an organizer of that organization.

Getting to work

Throughout the campaign for the Charter Commission, the role of the hired professional manager versus the elected mayor became the biggest talking point for most candidates. While the mayor is now popularly elected and leads the council, the position has no direct executive oversight of city department heads or the city budget.

The commission – which includes three members appointed by the City Council: Michael Kebede, Peter Eglinton, and Dory Waxman – must begin meeting within 30 days of the election and is expected to report back to the City Council within 12 months. It can only make recommendations, which have to be approved in a voter referendum. 

Washburn said she has spoken with City Hall, and the commissioners are still waiting to find out when they will be sworn in. But she said since several of the members are progressive, it’s a fair expectation that the group will propose some major changes.

She said she knows its recommendations have to go to the voters, and commissioners want to ensure a government process that is responsive to voters.

“It will be a balancing act,” Washburn said, adding that she would like to see the commission get started on the role of the city manager – which she wants to see eliminated. Additionally, she said she hopes the commission takes up increasing the number of electoral districts in the city and addressing compensation for city councilors.

“There are other things, but those are the (issues) I want to start with,” Washburn said.

Many of the candidates who were elected were supported by People First Charter and the Maine branch of Democratic Socialists of America. These endorsements came under fire ahead of the election, and People First was scrutinized for attacking opposing candidates.

Stewart-Bouley, for example, rebuked her endorsement from People First Charter. She also retweeted Sheikh-Yousef’s first tweet about Jennings, adding “Yeah we are. The Roses all won! A new way of politics,” but later deleted the tweet.

Despite the reignited debate over Jennings and his position, the June 8 election was still a resounding victory for progressive and first-time candidates. Former City Councilors Cheryl Leeman and Brian Batson were both defeated, by progressive candidates Zachary Barowitz and Marcques Houston, respectively, in Districts 3 and 4.

In District 5, Ryan Lizanecz defeated challenger Mony Hang. Lizanecz, a 23-year-old student at the University of Maine School of Law, was not been endorsed by People First but was in favor of reallocating power back to the mayor.

Lizanecz, like Washburn, said he has not heard anything about when the commissioners will be sworn in. He said he hopes they can start meeting soon, and “regardless of the political makeup of the commission,” he said he will continue to approach everything with an open mind.

Once the commission has met and elected a chair, vice chair, and established its rules, Lizanecz said the first thing he hopes the group takes up is clean elections. Additionally, he wants to ensure it provides ample opportunities for community engagement.

“I would really like to see what folks think,” he said.  

The fourth at-large candidate to win a seat was Marpheen Chann. He also said he would like to see the mayor’s position strengthened, but he opposed eliminating the manager.

Chann said he is optimistic about the Charter Commission engaging in a “deliberative and thoughtful” process once it begins meeting. He said the first topic the commission should consider is the responsibilities of the city manager and mayor. 

“That will be the bulk of the work, how do we go from here,” he said. “How do we improve what we have?”

Chann said he hopes the commission makes recommendations to improve the current system, rather than scrapping the city manager position, and hopes it will look at making the City Council more representative by reviewing the number of at-large seats. 

Commissioner-elect Robert O’Brien, who was unopposed in District 2, said his first priority is to ensure good procedures are in place. O’Brien served on the last commission in 2010 and said he’d like to see the same methods applied this time – a strong, neutral chairperson, with subcommittees that hear expert testimony.

In terms of major policy ideas, O’Brien, who has supported a strong executive mayor, said the biggest item obviously will be who is in charge of the city.

“There’s no doubt the commission will have to tackle the issue of executive leadership,” he said. “That was a major component of every race. Whether we have an executive mayor, the ways in which the duties of the city manager are retained have to be examined.”

Another issue the commission will have to deal with is the use of ranked-choice voting. O’Brien said the system the city used in the commission election – the multi-pass runoff – is something he would “like to see corrected.”

“You would think in a four-seat race like the at-large one,” he said, “you would only need 25 percent. That wasn’t the case.”

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