The Portland Phoenix

Ranked-choice voting decides Portland Charter Commission election

Portland officials said turnout at the city's 11 polling places was slow throughout the day Tuesday, June 8, for voting to elect nine Charter Commission members and validate the $125.2 million School Department budget. This was the scene in the afternoon at Reiche Elementary School in District 2. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

After nearly a year of debate, Portland voters Tuesday finally had their say and elected a new Charter Commission.

Based on unofficial election results, all of the nine elected commission members support strengthening the role of the city’s elected mayor.

The 12-person panel, which includes three members already appointed by the City Council, will convene within the next 30 days. By early next year it is expected to recommend changes to the City Charter – essentially Portland’s constitution – that could dramatically alter the city’s style of government, including the responsibilities and distribution of power between the elected mayor and the hired city manager.

In addition to the special Charter Commission election, Portland voters on Tuesday also approved the $125.2 million School Department budget for fiscal year 2022 by an overwhelming margin.

The most contested Charter Commission race was for four at-large spots, which attracted 10 candidates. It also tested the city’s use of ranked-choice voting, since each of the four winners had to have more than 50 percent of the vote.

That required a series of run-offs to determine the eventual winners: Marpheen Chann, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, Catherine Buxton, and Patricia Washburn.

While all the votes, including absentee ballots, were counted by a little before 11 p.m. Tuesday, none of the at-large candidates could immediately be declared a winner.

Sheikh-Yousef received the most votes of any at-large candidate prior to the runoffs, with 1,947 or just over 22 percent of the vote. Steven DiMillo was just behind her at 1,837 votes or about 21 percent. Chann received the third most votes before the runoff, with 1,478 or just under 17 percent. And Benjamin Grant received 1,082 votes, or roughly 12 percent before the ranked-choice tabulation took place.

Before the runoffs, Buxton had 970 votes or about 11 percent, and Washburn had just 367 votes or just over 4 percent.

City officials announced the runoff winners just before midnight.

Five commission seats will be held by candidates elected in each of the city’s five voting districts.

In District 1, Shamika “Shay” Stewart-Bouley was the overwhelming winner, defeating challengers Karen Snyder and David Cowie. Stewart-Bouley received 1,096 votes, nearly 65 percent of the district vote, compared with Snyder’s 333 and Cowie’s 245.

A fourth candidate, Twain Braden, was on the ballot but withdrew. He still received 14 votes.

In District 2, Robert O’Brien was unopposed after Em Burnett dropped out of the race. He served on the city’s last Charter Commission in 2009, which recommended the city’s return to a popularly elected mayor.

O’Brien ultimately received 984 votes, while Burnett still received 235 votes.

In District 3, Zachary Barowitz narrowly defeated two challengers, former City Councilor Brian Batson and Charles Bryon. Barowitz received 1,010 votes compared to Batson’s 731 and Bryon’s 233. Barowitz received more than 51 percent of the vote, compared to just over 37 percent for Batson and less than 12 percent for Bryon.

In District 4, organizer and advocate Marcques Houston defeated former Mayor and City Councilor Cheryl Leeman 979-933. Houston received just over 51 percent of the vote.  

In District 5, University of Maine School of Law student Ryan Lizanecz defeated real estate broker Mony Hang, 899-763, with just over 54 percent of the vote.

Barowitz, Houston, and Lizanecz held very slight leads over their challengers before absentee ballots were considered: Barowitz had 50.9 percent of the District 3 vote, Houston had just over 54 percent in District 4, and Lizanecz had just over 52 percent. Absentee ballots padded the leads for all three.

In addition to the nine commissioners elected Tuesday, there are three members who were appointed by the City Council last fall from a pool of nearly 40 applicants: Michael Kebede, Peter Eglinton, and Dory Waxman.

Jessica Grondin, a spokesperson for the city, said late Tuesday afternoon that voter turnout was slow around the city. She also said 3,354 absentee ballots had been requested, and only 2,536 were returned.

According to the city clerk’s office, however, turnout on Tuesday was higher than some past June elections, although still much lower than a November election. Typically, June elections usually only include the annual school budget validation, and party primary elections for state office, if any.

At the end of the day, 8,884 votes were cast in the Charter Commission election. Portland has more than 63,000 registered voters, which means just over 14 percent of registered voters participated.

In November 2020, more than 42,000 Portland residents voted. Last July, which was a primary election in addition to the school budget validation, more than 19,500 residents turned out. In March 2020, a special election for the presidential primary, more than 25,000 residents turned out.

One of the polling places for District 2 voters is the Reiche Elementary School in the city’s West End, where election warden Rachel Bryant said only 190 people had voted by about noon.

Bryant said she didn’t believe it was the hot, humid weather that kept voters away. She said spring and summer elections in Portland have historically had much smaller turnouts than elections in the fall.

“It’s not really different from any other summer election,” Bryant said.

The Deering High School polling place in District 5 also had a relatively quiet first half of the day. Warden Barbara Harvey said there were only 140 voters by about noon, and although voting opened at 7 a.m. it was a while before the first voter arrived.

She said the most eventful part of the morning was a music class that had originally planned to use the gym, where voting took place, and moved their drum circle to accommodate the polling booths.

Tuesday’s election came nearly a year after voters approved establishing the Charter Commission. While initially slated for June 2020, the referendum was delayed a month to July because of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, city officials maintained there was not enough time to have the commission election last November and ultimately scheduled it for this June.

The School Department budget passed Tuesday even before the 2,536 absentee ballots had been counted, according to city staff. It had 77 percent of the vote and led 4,743 to 1,382 without the absentee votes.

When absentee votes were counted, the final count was 6,698 to 1,992.

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